making local government more ethical

"I'm following my own path."

--Jean Sarkozy, 23-year-old son of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The young Sarkozy, who is studying law (he does not have a college degree yet) is the main candidate for chair of EPAD, a quasi-governmental agency that manages the La Defense financial district on the western outskirts of Paris. His father held the same position early in his career.

The young Sarkozy represents the Paris suburb of Neuilly on a regional council. His father was mayor of Neuilly. (from an Associated Press article)

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Should elected officials be held to a higher standard than ordinary people? And if so, who should decide?

These questions are central to a dispute that has been simmering for two years in El Paso. According to an article in the El Paso Times yesterday, the local district attorney would not allow a council member charged with a misdemeanor to participate in a diversion program for first-time offenders, which would have expunged the crime from her record. The reason for doing this was, the DA said, that public officials need to be held to a higher standard.

How can a lawyer responsibly deal with the following situation? A former city attorney, he has been general counsel to the city's sports authority, which oversees three major sports with three stadiums (and there's talk of a fourth, which the lawyer has publicly supported). The lawyer is also special counsel to the city's transit and port authorities, which the firm represents. And the firm is bond counsel to the school district.

The lawyer is running for mayor. According to the blog Musings (with links to official sites for each piece of information), the city's mayor appoints half the members of the sports authority (with council approval), five of nine members of the transit authority, and two of seven members of the port authority, with joint appointment of a third.

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.