making local government more ethical

This morning the Jacksonville City Council finance committee continued their deliberations on each line item of the city's budget. This morning's agenda begins with the Office of General Counsel, which includes the budget for the City's Ethics Officer.

Saturday, August 29 is the day when the Jacksonville City Council's finance committee will consider the budget for the city's ethics office, a big $95,000. There has been talk of using the city's budget crisis to get rid of the ethics office, but the newspapers and the city's civic organizations want to preserve the office.

The city's ethics officer, who will be making a presentation, is Carla Miller, president of City Ethics. The budget hearing can be viewed live on Saturday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (break from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.) at http://media.coj.net/COJCouncil. Minutes will be available a few days later at http://www.coj.net/City+Council/BudgetHearings.htm.

Here's a mind-twister of a situation, from St. Marys City (GA; pop 17,000). According to an article on jacksonville.com, four members of the city council wrote the state attorney general asking for a ruling on whether a fifth council member violated state law by refusing to disqualify himself from voting on the proposed relocation of the St. Marys Airport (he owns a business there).

One of the most contentious topics in local government ethics is prohibition vs. disclosure of gifts to officials. As with so many government ethics issues, the best answer is both, but reaching the best answer requires a thinking outside the box, along with a sincere interest in ending pay-to-play, in this case, the use of gifts as a way to reward officials for past or future conduct.

One example of such thinking outside the box comes from City Ethics' own Carla Miller, the Jacksonville ethics officer, and the city's ethics commission. The city had two laws on the books, one a prohibition provision, the other a disclosure provision. The former made the latter superfluous. And it also left open a loophole. Both were dealt with.

Who should pay for a lack of government transparency, the officials keeping the secrets or the citizens who lack access to information?

Applicant disclosure is an effective part of local government ethics that is usually ignored. Usually it is officials who are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest, either in the form of annual disclosure statements, revised when circumstances change, or in the form of announcements that they have a potential conflict and are withdrawing from involvement in a matter.
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