making local government more ethical

Another Argument for More Ethics Commission Authority

Three months ago, I wrote about an ethics commission decision asking for the removal of a Louisville council member, and the start of proceedings in the council to do just that. I noted that the council member's reaction was pure denial and attack on the ethics commission.

According to an editorial yesterday in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the council voted unanimously to expel the council member. It is hard to believe that a council member who apologized and made restitution for her misconduct would have been expelled. The editorial says that the new ethics system in Louisville worked. But an extreme result, even if itself desirable, does not mean the system worked as best it could.

When an official respects the ethics process, and the people it is intended to protect, there should be no ouster or council proceedings. There should be settlement, apology, penalty, and restitution.

But since the Louisville ethics commission has no power to do anything but reprimand and censure, there is little reason for a recalcitrant official to respect the process or to settle. Ethics self-enforcement is a political battle, and this official lost that battle. That is nothing to cheer about. Better that the penalty have been determined by an independent body, and that the political battle never have occurred.

One point the editorial makes is very valuable. The official resigned a few days before the council voted. And yet the council voted anyway. This meant that the council could voice its view, and show unanimity. This meant that the official could not run again for three years. And most important, this provided the public with a record and findings of fact. There is nothing worse than an official resigning in order to prevent the truth from coming out.

So, there was a victory for transparency, if not for government ethics. I hope the council will recognize that it was forced to act primarily because the ethics commission has too little authority and, therefore, does not gain sufficient respect at least from higher officials. Self-enforcement might look good when the council comes down hard on a member, but what about the next time, when it does not?

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics