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.


Take a look at the services we offer.
Although twenty years old and about the state level, Alan Rosenthal's The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States (CQ Press, 1993) provides valuable food for thought about lobbying at the local level. This first of two posts looks at such topics as the importance of relationships to lobbying and what makes local lobbying so different.

Small towns don't need lobbying registration, because no lobbying of any consequence occurs there.

Small towns don't need lobbying registration, because no lobbying of any consequence occurs there.

Say it often enough — as local government and lobbying associations do — and people believe it's true. But it's not. And here's a good example why.

Sometimes even a wrongheaded ethics complaint can do good, by showing how wrongheaded a town's government ethics program is.

According to an editorial in The Day this week, the head of a local political party, Independence for Montville, filed an ethics complaint alleging that a former council member who owns a hot dog stand pushed to have the town's street vendor law changed so that street vendors could be 500 feet rather than a mile (5280 feet) from a competing business. Unless there were a law prohibiting former council members from lobbying for their own interests, there would be no ethics violation.

The problem was that, in Montville (a town of 20,000 best known for hosting the Mohegan Sun casino), it is the town council that handles ethics complaints. As the editors recognize, "One party is going to be in charge, which means the public and those filing complaints are likely to look skeptically at the council's ethical rulings, suspecting favoritism, even if perhaps it is not there." Even if a local legislative body is nonpartisan, or evenly split, there is still the problem of members judging their colleagues regarding issues that affect them all, so that by letting off one colleague, they are creating (or seen to be creating) a precedent to let themselves off in the future.

The mayor of Miami-Dade County has announced the formation of a Procurement Review Task Force to, according to his May 6 memo (attached; see below), "improve and simplify our procurement process."

The principal goals of the task force are:
To ensure that all procurements continue to be conducted with the maximum level of transparency, fairness and integrity."

To "make procurement more efficient, easier to navigate for vendors," in other words, to significantly reduce "non-value added requirements. This also includes a full review of any changes needed to promote and implement Public-Private Partnerships and innovations from the private sector."
Balancing these two goals is one of the most difficult aspects of procurement. It is very hard to simplify the procurement process and reduce its requirements, while preserving transparency, fairness, and integrity.

One of the areas where government ethics laws are weakest is the indirect relationship, such as when a gift is given not to an official, but to an official's spouse or child; an official's business relationship is not with a developer, but with the owner of the developer's parent; an official's aide participates on a recused official's behalf; or an official participates in a contract matter when she has a family relationship with the owner of a subcontractor that is not directly involved in the bid. Simply adding the words "directly or indirectly" can allow an ethics code to make it clear that these are all conflict situations. But too many ethics codes do not contain these words.

This can also be the case with a lobbying code. Not all contract lobbyists have a direct contract with their client. For example, a public relations firm may be hired by a lobbyist as a subcontractor to work on a campaign to get a development approved. Or a lobbyist firm may hire an outside lobbyist who has an especially good relationship with a mayor.

It is important, therefore, to make it clear that such subcontractor lobbyists must also register and be bound by the lobbying and ethics codes of the jurisdiction. And it should be clear what responsibility the client, the contract lobbyist, and the subcontract lobbyist have with respect to the disclosure of information.

Many government ethics professionals don't like waivers. I think they're valuable. Basically, they are requests for an advisory opinion in which the official recognizes that certain conduct would constitute an ethics violation, but wants a determination that he can engage in the conduct due to special circumstances. The result of such a determination is the creation of a new, narrow exception to a rule. This is a good way of preventing bad unforeseen consequences of a rule. But waivers must be given only after a public hearing.

The value of a government ethics waiver is completely different when it is not an independent ethics officer or commission who makes the determination, and when there are no special circumstances that require a new exception. In fact, a waiver given by one or more officials without a very good reason sends the message that officials won't apply ethics rules when they don't feel like it or will favor certain of their colleagues (and, if they are in need of a waiver in the future, themselves). This makes a mockery of an ethics program and undermines the public's trust.