making local government more ethical
"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.
Because Massachusetts has one of the better state ethics programs with jurisdiction over local officials, there are very few local ethics programs, unlike the situation in Florida, California, or Texas, for example.

But there have been some recent ethics reform efforts at the local level. Most recently, according to an article last week in the Boston Globe, the new Boston mayor has appointed members to serve on a new Ethics Committee, which will have the authority to develop annual disclosure statements, establish an ethics training program, and "reassess our internal policies and procedures."

The four EC members include Boston's corporation counsel, a lawyer specializing in government law, a university chancellor, and a former executive director of the state EC.

In Somerville, a suburb of Boston, the mayor has taken an unusual approach in the ethics ordinance he proposed last week. It is a combination of an ex parte communications prohibition and the disclosure of communications. Its focus is solely on elected officials, that is, on the board of aldermen and the schools committee. Here is a description of the proposed rules:

On Monday, Anthony Man of the Sun-Sentinel wrote an excellent analysis of the lobbying elements of Florida Senate bill 846 (a copy of the bill is attached; see below), which was recently passed by the senate unanimously.

The law would prohibit local officials from registering as a lobbyist of state legislators or agencies, except on behalf of their political subdivision. This is a good prohibition, because it is not clear to the state official whether the local official is lobbying on behalf of the city or on behalf of a client. It is a classic situation of wearing two hats. And the local official may be harming the municipality by seeking a favor for a client rather than for the municipality, because such favors are limited.

Self-justification is an important element in ethical misconduct, cover-ups, and officials' public denials and explanations of conduct. It aids and abets our blind spots. It is a sign of weakness, anxiety, and fear more than of poor character

Self-justification is something each of us engages in. Sometimes we fight it, sometimes we effectively compromise with it, and sometimes we give in to it. The one thing most of us rarely do is think or talk openly about it.

Swiss writer Pascal Mercier's novel Perlmann's Silence, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (Atlantic, 2005, 2011), has some incredible passages about the self-justification process. They make great food for thought.

When a city or county attorney's office does not represent the ethics commission, should that office play any role in an ethics proceeding? I don't believe it should.

But that is what happened recently in Cobb County, GA, according to an article last week in the Marietta Daily Journal. After an ethics complaint was filed against four of the five county commissioners, the county attorney quickly filed a response "asking the ethics board to dismiss the complaint, which she called unfounded and based on non-legal claims."

Is local government ethics enforcement appropriate for local legislators? This question is currently being asked in Sarasota County, FL and Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS. A key to whether this is the right question is who is asking the question. In both cases, it is local legislators who have been respondents in ethics enforcement proceedings, and some of their legislative colleagues.