making local government more ethical

Anti-Government Anger Is Misplaced With Respect to Local Government Ethics Programs

There was a fascinating editorial in the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American yesterday. The editorial turns anti-government anger against the idea of a local government ethics program, and yet it has some valuable things to say about government ethics. Here's an edited version of it:
    One reason government grows like a cancer is the insistence every unexpected, unhappy development be dealt with by formulation of a new policy. More often, all it takes is common sense and voter awareness so the people responsible for bad outcomes are put out to pasture.

    Washington, CT is in the middle of a minor scandal because officials made the first selectman's [effectively, the mayor's] son caretaker of the town's beach house. He will live there for $500 a month and maintain indoor public areas, the boat launch and the lawn.

    Now Valerie Friedman, who ran unsuccessfully for Zoning Commission last year, is calling for creation of an ethics code to deal with such manifest conflicts of interest.

    And yes, it's a conflict of interest. The first selectman says he had nothing to do with the decision. But as first selectman, he has much influence over those who did make the decision: the two other two selectmen, and the Parks and Recreation Commissioner.

    "Our charge is to do what was best for the town, not what people might perceive," one of selectmen said. Wrong. Perception does matter. If residents and business people in town get it into their heads that officials are taking care of their own rather than managing the town's affairs in the best interests of all, a crisis of confidence is inevitable.

    The two selectman and the commissioner say they spoke with at least eight people who hoped to become caretaker. Was it a foregone conclusion that the first selectman's son would be chosen? Forgive us, and the other candidates, too, for harboring suspicions to that effect.

    Washington doesn't need an ethics code. It needs leaders who know a conflict of interest when they see one and who avoid it scrupulously. In the matter of the beach house, it's plain they did not. Whether the town needs different leaders, people with a more highly developed sense of what's ethical and what is not, is up to voters in November 2011.
The editorial is wise to focus on the importance of perception, but it is wrong to think that all conflicts of interest are obvious. The editors' antagonism toward government blinds them to the value of clear guidelines that go beyond the obvious (and this case is hardly obvious, since the first selectman was not directly involved), ethics training, a formal advisory opinion process, a disclosure process, and an enforcement process. Without these, ethics is nothing but a political football, as it appears to be in this editorial.

An ethics program is not a cancer growth, but a way of doing exactly what the editors feel it is important to do:  prevent the perception that government officials are taking care of their own. In Connecticut, an ethics code is also not a new policy, but instead a program to be set up under a longstanding state law in a state where about two-thirds of local governments have ethics codes (most towns that lack a code are tiny). Connecticut's ethics programs require improvement, not derision.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics