A Leadership Ethics Case Study
On a Saturday in February 2018, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced at a press conference that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be performing raids around the Bay Area the following day. At the time of her announcement, Schaaf said, “I am sharing this information publicly not to panic our residents but to protect them….My priority is for the well-being and safety of all residents—particularly our most vulnerable.” The raids resulted in the detainment of 232 suspected undocumented immigrants, half of whom had criminal convictions.
ICE officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the U.S. Justice Department, and the White House all criticized Schaaf for her decision to announce the raids. They argued that the warning caused an increased risk to ICE officers. Immigration organizations also criticized her decision by saying it could have set off a panic in the immigrant community and Oakland in general. Additionally, Noel Gallo, an Oakland City Councilman, said that annoying the feds isn’t in the city’s best interest. And Joe Tuman, a San Francisco State University professor, suggested that there may have been a quieter way to go about spreading this information to the local immigrant community rather than having a press conference.
One major point of criticism was that Schaaf was playing politics with this warning. Schaaf is a liberal mayor of a notoriously liberal and diverse city, and she has been very outspoken in her disdain for the Trump administration, even calling Trump the “Bully in Chief.” Schaaf also said the raids were both racist and politically motivated, and that the Trump administration is purposefully targeting California because it is liberal. Critics of her actions claim that her announcement was pandering to her base while jeopardizing the lives of law enforcement officials.
ICE Deputy Director Thomas D. Homan said that Schaaf’s announcement probably tipped off people with criminal records, allowing them to elude authorities, and called the decision “irresponsible” and “reckless.” After the raids, Homan said that 864 immigrants with criminal records “remain at large in the community” and directly blamed Schaaf for this.
Schaaf responded to criticism by saying she felt she had a moral and ethical obligation to say something. She said she received the information about the raid through unofficial government channels, and she believes she didn’t obstruct justice or break the law since the information came via nongovernmental sources. Schaaf also justified the decision by saying that Oakland has a legal right to be a sanctuary city, and they haven’t broken any laws; however, Schaaf’s assertion that she had the “right” to warn the immigrant community because Oakland is a sanctuary city is up for debate. According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ Government Ethics Director Hana Callaghan, sanctuary city status means that the municipality has determined it will not use city resources to assist the federal government in its immigration enforcement policies unless presented with a lawful court order; being a sanctuary city does not mean government officials can hinder lawful processes.
To complicate matters further, a spokesman for ICE, James Schwab, resigned over “false” and “misleading” statements he said were made by Homan and Sessions. Specifically, Schwab claims that the 864 immigrants with criminal records number referenced by Homan and Sessions was inflated and inaccurate. Schwab said, “I quit because I didn’t want to perpetuate misleading facts….I asked them to change the information. I told them that the information was wrong, they asked me to deflect, and I didn’t agree with that. Then I took some time, and I quit.”
Schaaf applauded Schwab’s resignation, saying that public servants should act with integrity and transparency.
The Trump administration is now suing California over it’s sanctuary city laws.
Ann Skeet, senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, has created a leadership model to explore ethical leadership practice. Using this model, we can ask the overall question: Is Schaaf practicing ethical leadership? Additionally, we can consider what we learn about her character through her actions and her impact.
Along with character, as a cornerstone for anyone’s practice of ethical leadership, we can look at the five additional ethical leadership practices Skeet identifies as a way to explore whether Schaaf’s actions are enhancing her impact as an ethical leader in her role as a government official.
- Creating Community: Did Schaaf use the Oakland community’s shared values as the cornerstone of her decision making? Did her decision align with the Oakland City Council’s mission and goals? Was she mindful of the various and conflicting stakeholders in the situation? Did her decision promote relationships within the Oakland community? Did it encourage a sense of connectedness and shared values?
- Encouraging Ethical Conduct: Did Schaaf openly acknowledge that her decision was based in ethics and morality? Did her decision promote awareness of an ethical issue? Did it create a positive or negative difference in the community? Did it make a positive or negative difference for her staff and for other offices in the local government?
- Showing Discipline in One’s Role: According to the Oakland City Charter, the Mayor’s functions and duties include providing “community leadership” and “taking issues to the people and marshalling public interest in and support for municipal activity.” Did her decision fulfill these two duties? Since Schaaf is a government figure, she has certain fiduciary obligations to her constituents; did this decision put the public’s interest before her own personal and political interests? Was she mindful of the conflicting role she has as both an elected official and a politician? By doing this at a press conference, was she putting her political ambitions ahead of her constituents’ interests and her duties as mayor?
- Clarifying Culture: When Schaaf was criticized for her decision, did she clarify her values, Oakland’s values, and the Trump administration’s? Did her announcement uphold the mission of city government and the mayor’s office? Is she identifying gaps between stated and actual values?
- Designing Ethical Systems: Did Schaaf’s actions have impact beyond the city of Oakland? Did her decision incite change at the national level? Did the decision create a conversation about immigration policy at a state and national level? Is it possible that by mis-relying upon sanctuary city status, she put the whole legal construct of sanctuary cities at risk? Is she putting federal funding for infrastructure, schools, and law enforcement at risk?