making local government more ethical

Citizens to Redistrict Austin Council

Update: January 30, 2013 (see below)

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post about the conflict at the heart of the local redistricting process, where the members of a legislative body are deeply involved in decisions that will determine whether or not they, and their party or faction, are re-elected. This conflict shares some similarities with the involvement of officials in selecting ethics commission members and enforcing government ethics laws.

According to an article in the Austin Statesman yesterday, a recent ballot measure changed the makeup of Austin's council from citywide reps to district reps and a citywide-elected mayor. The ballot measure also required that residents, not the council, draw the districts, so that council members could not gerrymander the districts to suit themselves (or, at least, the members with the most influence or desire).

The ballot measure used as a model the California commission that, in 2011, drew state and congressional districts.

The selection process is pretty complex, beyond what I can imagine would ever be done for an ethics commission. Only individuals who have been registered Austin voters for the past five years and have voted in at least three of the past five city general elections may apply. They also may not have "paid ties" to city politics. This means that lobbyists, city employees, and political consultants will not be accepted. And applicants must be willing not to serve in a city position (elected, appointed, or paid) for three to ten years after their committee has done its work (I suppose the range is for different kinds of position). The city auditor decides whether applicants meet the criteria.

Then, three CPAs will together choose 60 finalists from among the applicants who meet the criteria. It's interesting that they chose CPAs, who used to be considered so ethical that they were chosen to select contest winners, but are almost never considered worthy of sitting on a government ethics commission.

Then comes the voir dire stage. Each of the seven council members gets to strike one name off the list of finalists. That leaves 53.

From those 53, eight members of the fourteen-member redistricting panel will be randomly chosen. Then those eight will select the final six members, with the goal of geographic, ethnic, racial, gender and professional diversity. Diversity is a consideration that is too often ignored when it comes to selecting ethics commission members. Lawyers and clergy are generally considered to be the best candidates, due to a basic misunderstanding about government ethics: that's it about law and ethics, rather than about conflicts of interest, which are an issue in every profession.

The city is planning to spend $85,000 on ads to encourage residents to apply for the two panels. And, as is clear from the Statesman article, it is trying to get a lot of free advertising, as well. Rarely is a penny spent, or even a press release sent, to get people to apply to be on an ethics commission. A little promotion wouldn't hurt.

For more info, check out the 10-One portal (10-One is the inelegant name given to the process; it may also be the odds against a city having its ethics commission members selected by anyone but officials under the commission's jurisdiction).

Update: January 30, 2013
According to an article in the Burlington Free Press this week, the Burlington, VT council has decided to add seven citizens to the five council members on the city's redistricting committee. In addition, the redistricting committee is to be led by “a neutral, trained, objective facilitator."

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics