making local government more ethical
Update: June 29, 2010 (see below)

I thought I would never write about anything concerning Gov. Sarah Palin again, but the report on an ethics complaint against her, regarding the fund created to pay the legal expenses from her defense against prior ethics complaints, is too interesting and valuable to ignore.

The report (attached; see below) deals with two provisions that appear in most local government ethics codes:  misuse of office and gifts. The report's author, Thomas M. Daniel, brings a rather fresh perspective to these provisions, in the context of officials' legal defense funds.

"Even the baby Jesus accepted gifts, and I don't think it corrupted him." and "The taking of gifts does not corrupt a person. It's when you're taking those gifts for personal gain that they corrupt you."

—Former North Carolina state representative Drew Saunders. These words were spoken back in 2006, but they're far too good to reject on account of age. What's especially interesting is the context in which the first statement was made:  Saunders was pushing for an amendment to a new ethics law that required a one-year cooling-off period for former legislators before they became lobbyists. Saunders' amendment, cutting the time to six months, succeeded, and when he lost a primary in 2008, he resigned his position and, six months later, became a lobbyist. Or, should I say, became one of the state's "wise men"? I found these quotations in the News & Observer and wral.com.

While so many local governments don't take conflicts seriously enough to require recusal, some take conflicts too seriously, and overreact. This appears to be what happened in Elizabethtown (NY), according to an article in yesterday's Press-Republican.

Nepotism is often left out of ethics codes because it does not seem all that unethical. Another reason for leaving nepotism out is that it is so common, especially in the uniformed departments, that local government officials are afraid to touch it. When nepotism rules do appear, they often provide for grandfathering in current nepotism, and for waivers, even if waivers are not available for other ethics code violations.

No one does unethics like Chicago. It's been four months since I've written about the city, so it's long overdue.

According to a recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Alderman Patrick O'Connor is the favorite for appointment to the chair of the board's second most powerful committee, the Zoning Committee. His wife is a realtor. According to an article a year ago in the Chicago Tribune, her husband pushed for zoning changes that allowed her to sell $22 million worth of homes and condos in her husband's ward in the year before the article ran. Assume a commission of 2.5%, and that means the household received $550,000, less what the real estate firm kept, for those sales alone.

One problem local governments have in drafting ethics codes is that they want it to be too many things, to serve too many purposes. They want it to be an aspirational code of conduct, making local government more civil and government officials more honest and fair. They want it to make officials follow all relevant laws and constitutional provisions. And they want it to deal with conflicts of interest, that is, with the situations where personal interests may be placed above the public interest.

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