making local government more ethical

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Robert Wechsler

One of the most serious problems with municipal ethics codes is their unreadability. Few of those who write them seem to consider the capabilities of the code's audience: municipal officials and employees without a legal education.

In 1998, the Securities and Exchange Commission insisted that documents intended to disclose information to the public should be written in plain English, and to help with the process, it put together a Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC...

Robert Wechsler

This year Arizona will vote on a ballot initiative that will give one lucky voter in each election a $1 million prize. Is this an experiment that should be tried?

The arguments against this initiative are many, but a bit too easy. It's just a gimmick. It's public bribery (and possibly even illegal on this count). It won't work. People shouldn't be paid to vote; they should vote out of a sense of civic duty. People who vote in order to win a prize won't research the candidates. It will...

Robert Wechsler

Patronage is the most basic of all municipal conflicts of interest. It involves not only self-interest (my job), but also a variety of organizational interests (my agency, party, ethnic or racial group, friends). In every little patronage decision, all of these interests take precedence over the public interest. And yet patronage is also the most commonly practiced, and accepted, of all municipal conflicts of interest. Nowhere has patronage been practiced and accepted more than in Chicago....

Robert Wechsler

As canaries were to mines, apologies are to a municipality's ethical environment. If you don't see a good number of sincere apologies, then ethics and accountability are probably dead in your town. In addition, insincere apologies are a sure sign that the town's political leaders are manipulative and trying to get something for nothing.

According to Aaron Lazare, in his excellent On Apology (Oxford University Press, 2004), an apology is "an encounter between two...

Robert Wechsler

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision in Randall v. Sorrell is a setback for municipal efforts at campaign finance reform (CFR). CFR is a municipal ethics issue, because the justification for campaign spending and contribution limits is that such limits help to prevent corruption.

The main decision of Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Roberts and Alito, was that campaign expenditure limits continue to be...

Robert Wechsler

I would like to hear how many people have had similar experiences to the one I will describe below, and what people think should be done in response. It concerns conflicts of interest, and the way a discussion of them within the context of a particular possible instance can so easily be turned into a personal, emotional issue, undermining the public's view of the importance of dealing with conflicts.

At a meeting of my own town's executive board in Connecticut (our legislature is a...