making local government more ethical

Save time and effort

by reading our introduction to local government ethics or using the City Ethics Model Code. Also check out our top ten lists of books, or movies.

Discuss & Contribute

Comment on a blog post

Review our Publications

We now have several publications available in various digital formats, including all major e-Reader formats! Please go HERE to view.

Services

Take a look at the services we offer.
The word "fiefdom" does not appear in the U.S. Justice Department's March 4 report on Ferguson, MO's police department, but that is what the report describes. What is unusual about the fiefdom is that it is controlled by the council, not by an executive or attorney. It is far from a classic fiefdom, which is why Ferguson has once again attracted my attention. One thing that is especially disturbing is that many of the same attributes appear in other cities and towns in the area (see the report's final recommendation). This is a form of institutional corruption that appears to have become the, or at least a, norm in St. Louis County. It should come as no surprise that St. Louis is in the minority of large cities without a government conflicts of interest program, and that the state's municipal ethics program is weak.

Across the country, requests for citizen complaints provide not only for complaints, but also for commendations. I happened to notice one of these when I was in the nation's capital this weekend, and it got me wondering why this is not done with respect to government ethics complaints and hotline reports.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if ethics commissions were to ask citizens to file commendations regarding government officials' responsible handling of conflicts of interest situations? First, this would require the ethics commission to describe what it means to handle such situations responsibly, which is the core of government ethics, but is too often ignored. Second, this would emphasize that a healthy government ethics environment can be equally, or even better, created by the recognition of exemplary conduct than by enforcement against misconduct (even though the latter is also necessary).

Yesterday, two members of a New York City council member's election campaign were indicted on criminal charges brought by a special prosecutor, who was appointed in 2012. Read this December 2014 New York Law Journal op-ed piece by Brennan Center (NYU) Chief Counsel and longtime New York City Corporation Counsel Frederick A.O. Schwarz, which argues very well that this prosecution was wrongly pursued, replacing the investigation of the New York Campaign Finance Board, which runs the city's excellent public financing program (Schwarz chaired the board from 2002 to 2008). Before the charges were brought, Schwarz called for the special prosecutor to stand down and let the board investigate the matter.

Is it, as Every Voice says in its celebratory e-mail last night, an "exciting victory [that] sent a loud and clear mandate to city and state governments to fundamentally reform the way we fund elections so that everyday Americans can take back control of their democracy"?

Or is it, as the more cynical Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote two days ago, "as useful as a square-shaped wheel," and "will change nothing"?

According to a front-page article in today's New York Times, industries that unsuccessfully oppose local government regulations are going (effectively appealing) to state governments to get those regulations "pre-empted." The regulations involve everything from fracking, plastic bags, and e-cigarettes to minimum wages, apartment rentals, and municipal broadband systems. The industries involved include oil and gas, chemicals, restaurants, landlords, and cable television.

For those cities and counties that have lobbying oversight programs, this means that when a matter has been decided locally by law or referendum, lobbying on the matter continues, but without any registration or disclosure, at least locally. If there is state lobbying disclosure, as well as obligations and prohibitions, the requirements may be less inclusive, strict, and timely than the city or county's. This may mean that there is less or even no disclosure, or only disclosure after the matter has been decided. The lobbying will have gone off the local radar, even when it is opposed to the will of the local government or its citizens.

It is important for local government candidates who have serious conflicts of interest to let the community (not just voters in their district) know how they will deal with the conflicts if they are elected. To do this, they usually need to discuss possible situations with an ethics adviser, because it is too difficult to work out a plan on their own. But this rarely happens. Usually, when someone asks the right question, the candidate says she will deal with the issue when it arises, following all the relevant laws.

It is great to see the Chicago Sun-Times asking some good questions and trying to get a conflicted candidate to give more than a promise to follow the law and legal advice. The candidate has some complex conflict situations. An aldermanic candidate in Chicago, Patrick Daley Thompson is a land use attorney, a lobbyist registered with the city, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District  (MWRD) commission, a nephew of the most recent mayor, Richard M. Daley (in office twelve years, and whose law firm is, among other things, bond counsel for the MWRD), and a cousin of a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, which appears to have issued the bonds.