making local government more ethical
Reading in The Economist a distinction made by Paul Kingsnorth, a leader of the uncivilization movement, a response to climate change, made me wonder whether it is also important with respect to government ethics. His distinction is between a "problem" and a "predicament." A "problem" is something that can be solved. A "predicament" is something that must be endured, for which there is no real solution. When faced with a predicament, the appropriate response is not to try to solve it, but rather to accept it and feel grief for what is lost because of it.

Government ethics programs are intended to prevent and enforce against the misuse of public office for personal benefit. But is the use of public office for personal benefit a "problem" or a "predicament"? Can it be prevented, or is it just the way people are, or the way people who get into politics are, or the way people are who obtain public office and give in to the opportunities presented by power and the pressures of their colleagues, friends, business associates, and family members? Is this something we must endure or something that can be changed?

I am a big believer in officials taking voluntary action to improve an ethics environment when passing laws is not possible. For example, if the state and the council both choose not to prohibit campaign contributions from restricted sources, that is no reason why a mayoral candidate should not make it known that he will reject such contributions and do his best to get all candidates to reject them. In many instances, this can be the end of such campaign contributions in that particular city or county, and neighboring cities and counties may follow suit. But often, when voluntary action is taken, but no law is passed, there is backsliding.

Can local legislators be trusted with the discretion to reimburse their colleagues for legal fees in ethics proceedings? This question is raised by a decision of the Wellington, FL council a few weeks ago.

According to an editorial in the Town-Crier Online, Wellington's mayor was found by the county ethics commission to have accepted an illegal gift to his defense fund, was sent a letter of instruction, and returned the gift. And yet, the council reimbursed him for legal fees spent in the ethics proceeding.

This week, Linda Greenhouse pointed out, in a New York Times op-ed piece, that an April 14 decision by the D.C. Circuit could have an effect on campaign finance disclosure. It could have an effect on government ethics disclosure, as well.

I read something very exciting today in the April 1 newsletter of the Ethics Section of the American Society for Public Administration. In a short essay entitled "Living in Glass Houses: Ethics Commissions in the United States," Stuart C. Gilman, who has had an illustrious career both in academia and on the front lines of ethics and anti-corruption efforts, wrote the following:
I believe it is time for the ethics section to become more activist by encouraging targeted research or an ASPA commission to look into what makes ... ethics commissions effective. ... By being a bit more activist, we might be able to aid [American] commissions with tools to assist them in encouraging individuals to act with integrity and discouraging those who enter public service for selfish or narrowly partisan reasons.
"Wheeling" is a term I just discovered. The context is that NJ governor Chris Christie made a campaign promise to deal with "wheeling," and then failed to, according to a South Jersey Times editorial yesterday. Here's how the editorial describes the practice (many NJ local governments prohibit or limit contributions from their contractors):
It goes like this: Smith County has a fat consulting contract with Joe Blow Associates. Instead of giving $10,000 to the Smith County Republicrats, Joe Blow sends a $10,000 check to the Jones County Republicrats. Suddenly, a $10,000 “clean” donation from “Jones County Republicrats” appears in the Smith County incumbents’ campaign fund.