making local government more ethical

A Columnist Gets Government Ethics, A Former Mayor Doesn't

(Update: March 1, 2010: Also see this excellent Times-Union editorial on the importance of an independent ethics commission that has authority over independent authorities. A particularly valuable observation: "The city Ethics Commission needs the ability to obtain independent legal advice. The city General Counsel's Office advises the mayor, City Council and the Ethics Commission. If the Ethics Commission receives a complaint against the mayor or council, the general counsel should not be representing both sides.")

It's truly a joy when a newspaper columnist really gets government ethics. Jacksonville Times-Union's Ron Littlepage showed this yesterday in his column. He perfectly captures the circle formed by government ethics and lack of trust in government officials. His column responds directly and concisely to the usual problems officials have with independent ethics commissions. The column is so short, I'm going to share the whole thing:

There's been much discussion of late about the Jacksonville Ethics Commission.

Should the commission be more independent? Should the independent authorities fall under the commission's purview? What if the commission becomes too aggressive?

The answers are simple:

Yes, the commission should be independent with its own staff that has the ability to investigate complaints.

Yes, the commission should be able to look into issues involving the independent authorities.

As for the commission becoming too aggressive, who would want a commission that's wimpy and unable to take on tough questions?

Only public officials uncomfortable with having their actions examined, that's who.

Those wanting a weak Ethics Commission or no Ethics Commission should take note of this: City government is generally held in low esteem.

There are a lot of reasons, but one big one is a lack of trust in the motives of public officials.

A strong Ethics Commission won't always find the negative.

A thorough look at complaints often dispels the rumors and innuendoes behind them.

Those kind of explanations help build trust in government, which is needed. See above.

Not everyone in Jacksonville gets government ethics. Unsurprisingly, one of these people is a former mayor on the city's charter review commission, which is the body that will decide how independent the ethics commission will be.

According to an article in the Times-Union, Ed Austin "was skeptical about the need for a more independent Ethics Commission, saying the city did not suffer from widespread public corruption. 'I'm still befuddled by the necessity of all this,' he said. 'I don't see a great big problem going on.'"

Lack of trust in government officials isn't enough? Until officials end up on chain gangs, there doesn't need to be an independent ethics commission? The former mayor has it upside down. An independent ethics commission is supposed to prevent widespread public corruption, and lead to more trust in government. Austin and his fellow charter review commission members should sit down with Ron Littlepage for a briefing on government ethics.

(Disclosure:  City Ethics' president, Carla Miller, is the Jacksonville ethics officer, and she is seeking an independent ethics commission. Currently, she reports to the mayor and the council president instead of to the ethics commission. I don't know any of these people myself.)

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics