making local government more ethical
What's an ethics commission to do? Even ethics commissions with teeth, that is, with the ability to fine officials, rarely have a way of actually collecting the fines. And if they do have a way of collecting fines, it can make things look unfair.

Take South Carolina, whose ethics commission has jurisdiction over local government officials.  According to its online debtors' list, officials, candidates, and lobbyists owe about $4 million in fines. Several owe hundreds of thousands of dollars each and, according to an article in the Post and Courier early this year, have refused to file the necessary reports or discuss a settlement.

Yesterday, according to an article in the Dallas Observer, Don Hill, a former Dallas council member, and four of his associates were found guilty of participating in an incredible extortion plot relating to affordable housing in South Dallas. The story, as produced by the prosecution with the help of a major participant who pled guilty and a developer who was an FBI informant, is told at length in another Observer article. It's a must read.

There are limits on the legislative immunity of local government officials, according to a decision yesterday by the Baltimore Circuit Court in the Dixon case (attached; see below), involving the mayor of Baltimore at the time she was president of the city council.

Update: December 2, 2009 (see below)

I have often complained about how local government officials and attorneys approach government ethics matters in an overly technical manner. Well, ethics commission attorneys can do this, too.

In terms of the language in ethics codes, I think the rule should be, If an ordinary person does not read language a certain way, an ethics commission should not read it that way. If the ethics commission feels certain language should be read a different way, it should recommend that the language of the provision be changed or that a comment be inserted giving clear examples of situations to which the language applies. Even precedents are insufficient, because few local government employees or officials will be aware of them, as helpful as they may be to ethics counselors.

When Is a Confidentiality Waiver Not a Confidentiality Waiver?
It is common for ethics codes to allow respondents in ethics proceedings to waive confidentiality and make the proceeding public. This is what South Carolina governor Mark Sanford did, according to an article in The State back in August.

"Sanford said a public investigation is in line with his support of open government. 'In the continued spirit of a fair and transparent process, I am today announcing that I'll be waiving confidentiality as the Ethics Commission studies some of the allegations made in the press and by political detractors. Our administration has nothing to hide,' Sanford said. 'The truth will ultimately be laid out on that front.'"

Reading Garry Wills' A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (1999) made me think about how anti- and pro-government feelings jive with views on government ethics.