making local government more ethical

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Robert Wechsler
Preferential treatment is one of the most difficult ethics provisions to deal with, because it seems on its face so open-ended. Every time a decision is made, someone is preferred over someone else, whether it's a hiring decision, a contract award, or a zoning change. But if these decisions are made fairly and through the appropriate legal process, there is no preferential treatment.

Preferential treatment involves acting unfairly and outside the appropriate legal process to give...
Robert Wechsler
One of the most difficult things for a government official to do is to determine whether his or her conduct creates an appearance of impropriety. Partially blinded by ego, surrounding yes-people, and the government's ethical culture, an official often finds nothing wrong with conduct that many or even most outsiders -- that is, citizens -- find questionable or downright wrong. It is hard for them to put themselves in citizen shoes in order to see whether their conduct might appear improper...
Robert Wechsler
Undisclosed conflicts can cause a lot of problems, but rarely are they a matter of life and death. In Collin County, TX, north of Dallas, an undisclosed conflict could have been responsible for a man's death sentence (and, perhaps, many more sentences).

According to an article this week in the Plano Star-Courier, a district attorney and judge were having an affair,...
Robert Wechsler
Privatizing local government functions can cause conflict of interest problems, but at least contractors can be held to contracts and replaced when they run afoul of ethics or other laws or requirements. The same is not necessarily true when non-profit organizations take over local government functions not as contractors or grant recipients (as with social service agencies), but as partial or full replacements.

This week the New York Post ran...
Robert Wechsler
Accusing someone of a conflict of interest can lead to trouble, especially if the person you accuse is a litigious lawyer and you do it outside of an ethics proceeding. This is what one can read from a $5 million suit filed by a former town attorney against the town of Victor, NY  (pop. 10,000) and a member of the town's planning board.

According to an article yesterday in the Daily Messenger, the former town attorney's cause of action was a false accusation of...
Robert Wechsler
Many local government ethics codes define a conflict of interest as existing only when an official stands to receive a financial benefit from his or her action or inaction. But real and perceived conflicts exist even when there is no financial benefit to an official. Important examples include benefits to relatives and business associates, where the official only benefits indirectly, while others benefit directly.

According to...

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