making local government more ethical

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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...

Robert Wechsler

Yesterday, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to municipal government employee rights in its decision in Garcetti et al v. Ceballos.

Essentially, Justice Kennedy, for the majority of five, decided to limit the 1968 Pickering balancing test (between the interests of the employee as citizen in commenting on matters of public concern, and the interests of the State as employer in promoting efficiency of public services...

Robert Wechsler

Terry L. Price's new book, Understanding Ethical Failures in Leadership (Cambridge University Press, 2006), provoked in me a great deal of thinking about what is behind the ethical failures of elected and appointed municipal officials. I will be talking in terms of officials, but Price speaks only in terms of leaders in general, with an emphasis on governmental leaders.

His central thesis is that such ethical failures are fundamentally cognitive rather than volitional, that is...