making local government more ethical
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.

It's here at last:  the final chapter of my free e-book Local Government Ethics Programs. It is on lobbying oversight.

This is a topic that has received very little attention. The result is that the great majority of local governments have no lobbying oversight, and the programs that exist vary greatly and, for the most part, require disclosure of too few lobbying activities in a manner that is not as accessible as it should be, nor as timely. There is almost no online information about lobbying training, advice, or enforcement.