making local government more ethical
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.
Explaining a political decision on the basis of government ethics, when that really isn't the reason, can lead to government ethics reform made on the basis of politics. That's what appears to have happened in Boerne (TX), a small "city" of 6,000 residents outside San Antonio.

"I believe that an alderman's office is a political office," said Chicago alderman Suarez, one of 50 aldermen to get their expense allowances doubled last year, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune. Suarez, however, refused to use city funds to pay for his ward office, because "it's hard to draw a precise line between legislative and political activity," according to another article in the Chicago Tribune.

And when part-time local government legislators are given over $70,000 in expenses beyond an office, three aides, and a salary over $100,000 plus benefits, the precise line between legislative and personal activity also becomes an issue.

Republican candidates in Cumberland County, in southern New Jersey (pop. 150,000), are pushing for several ethics reforms, including some fresh ideas.

According to an article in the Press of Atlantic City and an article on, the focus is on opening up public access to information. Suggested transparency changes include posting more government records online, including budget, audits, contracts, and reports, as well as Open Public Records Act requests and responses; allowing the public to film or tape public meetings, and posting video recordings of county meetings online; and posting agendas for county meetings no later than three days prior to a meeting. These are all great ideas.