making local government more ethical
"In my view, the suggestion [by Judge Sotomayor] that [campaign] contributions are tantamount to bribery should offend anyone who’s ever contributed to a political campaign — including the millions of Americans who donated money in small and large amounts to the Presidential campaign of the man who nominated Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court."

Sen. Mitch McConnell (Rep, KY) in a press release yesterday. Sotomayor, like others who support campaign finance reform, do not equate small campaign contributions with bribery. In fact, a principal goal of campaign finance reform, especially public financing, is to make small campaign contributions more valuable to candidates. Small contributors give because they believe in a candidate. Many large contributors give because they want something from a candidate. To confuse the two, as Sen. McConnell did yesterday, is a devious, desperate attack on campaign finance reform and Judge Sotomayor, and an irresponsible use of the free speech that Sen. McConnell says he cherishes. [Disclosure: Besides my work with City Ethics, I administer a public campaign financing program in New Haven, CT.]

I don't like seeing conflicts of interest discussed improperly in the context of an election. Elections are a good time to educate the public about issues, but when government ethics is used for partisan purposes, it undermines both the public's understanding and their trust in elected officials.

A judicial opinion is apparently not enough to put an end to local government officials using the excuse that the local government attorney told them participation in a matter is legal. Nor is the fact that the official's decision whether to participate is not solely a legal decision, but rather a judgment based partially on the language of an ethics code and partially on a determination of what is appropriate under the circumstances. What happened last week in La Quinta (CA) shows how dangerous and wrong it is to ignore both a judicial opinion and the obligation of government officials to take full responsibility for their government ethics decisions.

Gov. Sarah Palin's national fame has brought government ethics complaints to the attention of people who had never paid any attention to them. And the result has, in general, been one of distortion rather than education. The latest news has especially distorted the nation's view of government ethics: the argument that defending against frivolous ethics complaints was too costly in dollars and time, and therefore damaging to the state and the people of Alaska, so damaging that the governor resigned her position.

Ethics Reform Usually Means Ethics Changes
While most people in Massachusetts are cheering on the ethics reform package that was just passed, at least one state representative has focused on the compromises and limitations of the package, calling it a first step. Most responses to scandals are partial rather than changing the entire environment, and in her excellent guest column Rep. Jennifer Callahan points out the problems with this.

It is common for mayors and council members to take volunteer positions on the boards of community nonprofits. Sometimes it's primarily honorific, but sometimes it shows a special commitment to a particular program or project, and sometimes it involves a leadership position. Such a position can create real or apparent conflicts of interest.