making local government more ethical
Here's an interesting conflict situation from Louisiana that involves a good intra-governmental revolving door provision and unforeseen circumstances. According to an article today in the Advocate, the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board made the wise decision to ask the state ethics board, which has jurisdiction over local officials, whether it could hire the city's deputy mayor as its executive director.

What is interesting here is that, over the past three years, the deputy mayor has attended nearly every water board meeting and, sitting in for the mayor, has chaired them. Thus, although not a member himself, he had more power than any member.

Earlier this month, a bill came before the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, called the Machers Bill. Its goal is to expand the Knesset's lobbying law to the executive branch as well as to municipalities, something that is rare in American states.

But what is a "macher"? It's a Yiddish term that, in the U.S., is most frequently used with respect to people in the Jewish community who always have their fingers in everything that's going on. They make (machen) things happen. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, the title of this particular bill comes from the judge who recently convicted a former Israeli prime minister of bribery. This case involved what the Jewish Forward, an American weekly, called "a shadowy figure ... who has been referred to repeatedly by the Israeli media as the macher who coordinated everyone."

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.