Sunday, August 23, 2009


What's the right thing to do when the ethical obligations of citizenship seem to conflict with professional objectivity?

A reader in North Carolina serves as an unpaid committee of one handling communications for the board of his homeowner's association. In this capacity he has collected the e-mail addresses of the 60 or so members of the association in order to distribute the HOA newsletter, in which he conveys announcements of events, security concerns or anything else of "probable resident interest."

My reader is not a member of the HOA's board of directors, but his efforts have had the board's approval.

"I have had nothing but positive feedback on my efforts as the chairman of the one-person Communications Committee," he says.

He has no idea how others in his upper-middle-class community feel about health-care reform, but he says that, having actually read some of the proposed reform bills winding their way through Congress, he has "serious reservations" about them. He has been thinking about getting together a group of his neighbors to discuss the issues of the day, and in particular health care.

He'd like to explore his neighbors' interest in getting together for such a purpose, to see "if anybody had any ideas on how best to express our opinions," and is considering using that e-mail list - but not the newsletter itself - to see what people think.

In the past my reader has been approached by people who wanted the HOA's e-mail list for commercial purposes, and he always has turned them down, pointing out that the e-mails are available on the community Web site.

Given these past refusals, he wonders if it would be "ethical for me to send out an e-mail _ disclaiming any HOA board involvement _ to see what interest it generates."

He recognizes that to do so would open him to possible criticism, and has considered instead printing a flyer and distributing it by hand, at his own expense, to gauge his neighbors' interest.

My reader's worries about the appropriateness of using the e-mail addresses for his own purposes is creditable to him. As long as he makes clear what he's doing, however, there's no reason that he shouldn't use the e-mail addresses. After all, as he says, they are available to any member of the association - including himself - on its Web site.

He is wary of using the newsletter or its e-mail list to advance his own personal views, and rightly so. If he were to send the members an e-mail laying out his position on health-care reform or, worse, if he put his opinions into the newsletter itself, that would indeed be overstepping his bounds.

The whole purpose of the newsletter is to announce upcoming events and issues of interest to the broader membership, however. If he proposes to organize a community meeting to discuss health-care reform or any other public issues, there's no reason not to use the newsletter to publicize that meeting.

If some other member were staging it, he'd obviously include it in the newsletter. Sensitivity about conflict of interest does not extend to denying himself the basic rights of membership.

The right thing for my reader to do is to organize the meeting, working to ensure that it is not merely a platform for his views but rather an exploratory session to which those with views on any side of the issue are welcome. He can then announce it in the newsletter, confining himself to the when-and-where of the meeting and its general topic, and not laying out any pros or cons on the issues involved.

To do so will not only steer clear of ethical issues where the newsletter is concerned, but also fit well with the ethical obligations of citizenship.

At the meeting itself, of course, he is free to lay out his own feelings on the issue.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Bill Jacobson said...


I see no ethical issues impinged in using the email addresses or newsletter posting to notify others about this meeting, so long as homeowners have authorized their email addresses to be used for such contacts and those communication methods are available to other homeowners to post their own notifications.

The board member should be careful to word his invite as an invitation not an indoctrination but utilizing communications methods that are open to all should not be forbidden just because he's a board member.

OMG, I agree with you on every point... what fun is that?

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA