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John Florez: Lawmakers won't reform ethics, so public must

Legislators' attempts at ethics reform remind me of a trick I used to try to play as a kid. On cold winter nights, I'd try to protect my big, wet, smelly, shaggy dog from having my father put him outside by hiding him under my bed covers. Seems legislators are trying to play similar tricks on the public, thinking we cannot see the obvious.

Legislators are now trying to play the same tricks on us with their talk about ethics reform to pacify the public. For years they have tried to quiet Utahns by making cosmetic changes to ethics reform. But it verges on hypocrisy when they keep calling for the rule of law and more regulations on public agencies, yet they are unable to abide by the basic principles of fairness and honesty taught at our parents' dinner table.

However, they recently got caught by their own moves when they unintentionally banned themselves from taking tickets to sporting and artistic events costing more than $50. Better believe they will change that. But don't expect them to make any changes that restore the public trust in our government. For years Utahns have made legislative ethics reform a top priority, yet the Legislature does what all institutions do instinctively when threatened: become defensive, turn a deaf ear and do nothing. They figure they can wait out the critics. So far it's worked.

If there is anything we've learned about institutions, it's that change does not come from within. Those on the inside fight to keep the status quo. They keep doing the same things and soon lose sight of the purpose for which they were created. Legislators complain about public agencies, employee and teacher unions that are self-serving and resist change at taxpayers' expense. Lawmakers are responsible for working for the public good, yet seem more concerned about serving the special interest groups that pay for their campaigns and benefit from the status quo.

Last Wednesday some residents decided to do something about restoring integrity and ethics to state government. They kicked off a grass-roots campaign, Utahns for Ethical Government, to start a ballot initiative to establish an independent ethics commission, "to investigate complaints against lawmakers and make recommendations to the legislative body." They want to get government back to the people by limiting gifts and campaign contributions and requiring full financial disclosure, among several other reforms. They are inviting Utahns to join them in signing the petition to get the issue on the 2010 ballot (www.utahethics .org).

Legislators have had plenty of time to restore the public's trust; what they lack is the will to put the public's interests first. For years they have ignored the people's plea for ethics reform. It's time to change that. There is a multitude of lobbyists and special interest groups with their gifts and campaign contributions that have more influence than the average citizen. The public's opinion is often ignored in favor of the lobbyists. Our government was designed so that at times it needs a little push, and often a big one, to make sure it works in their interest. John W. Gardner had it right when he founded Common Cause, "Everybody's organized but the people." There is no organized voice that is working for the people.

Having an ethical government should be no big deal; no need for legislative tricks or trying to hide the obvious — just practice the values their parents taught them early in life. It is also clear that since they have shown the inability to restore ethics in government, the public must now do it.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.