making local government more ethical
Michael J. Sandel's famous introduction to ethical philosophy course at Harvard University, Justice, is becoming available on video both online and on many PBS stations across the country (dates and times vary; in some areas, the segments have just begun running; the first two segments are available online). This course should provide an excellent background for those interested in government ethics and, starting with Episode Ten: The Good Citizen (available online November 19), it focuses on government and community ethics.

Sandel is quoted as saying, "The title is Justice, but in a way the subject is citizenship ... the aim is not to try to persuade students, but to equip them to become politically-minded citizens."
Update: 9/30/09
I was asked to do a short interview on Phoenix's NPR station KJZZ yesterday, to provide a government ethics view on issues relating to the latest battle in the uncivil war among elected officials in Maricopa County, the county that includes Phoenix. My research into what is going on raised all sorts of interesting issues. I'll deal with them in multiple blog posts.

First, what happened. County Sheriff Joe Arpaio arrested County Supervisor (effectively council member) Don Stapley three days after a county attorney moved to dismiss charges against Shapley for numerous purgery counts relating to the filing of financial disclosure forms. The new counts, according to an article in the Arizona Republic, involve primarily (i) campaigning for officer positions in the National Association of Counties (NACo), a membership organization, including misuse of office and personal use of campaign contributions; and (ii) misrepresentations on a mortgage document, campaign finance reports, and a tax return. The great majority of the counts are felony counts.

One issue, which I had never thought of, is not part of the case, but its facts led me to think of it. According to the counts, one NACo campaign contribution was in the sum of $25,000, and fifteen others ranged from $3,000 to $24,999.

When a congressman goes after a lawyer whose organization filed an ethics complaint against him (in his capacity as Colorado's secretary of state), you know he is more interested in getting even than he is in the public interest. Getting even, however, is not what public servants should be doing.

Recusal is a touchy subject for government officials, for two principal reasons. One, withdrawing from a matter can appear to constitute an admission of misconduct. This is because so many people, and even ethics codes, consider it wrong to have a conflict. Actually, recusing oneself is a way of dealing responsibly with a conflict, and is the opposite of misconduct.

Two, raising the issue of a conflict can disclose information the official would rather keep personal. After all, the conflict involved is between personal interests and the public interest, so some sort of personal interest must be disclosed if a conflict is disclosed.

When a government employee holds or runs for elective office, there can be conflict of interest problems. The principal problem occurs when the government employee has to participate in a matter that directly or indirectly affects his or her agency or department. Whether there is a conflict depends on how direct the effect is. Another problem involves running for office in violation of the federal Hatch Act.

The business coalition in Palm Beach County (FL) really gets it. One reason is that City Ethics' Carla Miller has provided advice. The coalition consists of Leadership Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach County Business Forum, the Palm Beach County Economic Council, and the Voters Coalition. Its positions are best stated in a short essay available at the League of Women Voters of Palm Beach County site.

The coalition understands that no amount of legal or institutional reform will change the culture of a county where three former commissioners were convicted of crimes against the people they were supposed to serve. They realize that the culture itself needs to be changed. The essay recognizes that "culture is created in organizations by an agreement on a vision, mission, a set of values and senior management’s support and reinforcement of those values."