making local government more ethical

Another Reason Not to Let an Ethics Program Become Moribund

Here's an all too common scenario:  A local government creates an ethics program after a scandal, and time passes either without another scandal or with a change of administration. The new administration sees the ethics program as unnecessary, and decides not to fund the program and not to replace ethics commission members who resign or whose terms run out. The ethics program remains on the books, but there is no training, advice, disclosure, or enforcement of the ethics code, no active ethics commission, and no budget. And then another scandal comes, and there is no ethics program to deal with it.

This is basically what has happened in Hamilton Township, NJ. Since a moribund ethics program is not a newsworthy issue, it was ignored by the press. It is the opposition party (the one that pushed the ethics program in the first place) that is calling for the ethics program to be revived (it's not clear whether the party called for this before the latest scandal).

The moral of the story? Never assume (or act as if you truly believe) that because everything is fine, your community doesn't need an ethics program. If someone argues this, citizens should point out that no one knows whether everything is fine or not, and that it apears self-serving for those in power to say so, especially since they may very well know or suspect that the facts are otherwise.

The new scandal is cookie cutter. According to an article in the Trenton Times, the mayor was charged with taking $12,400 to influence a no-bid school health insurance contract. He has been charged with attempted extortion, which is a lot harder to prove than soliciting and accepting a gift from someone seeking benefits from the township.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics