making local government more ethical

Current Ethics Reform II - Phoenix

In June, the Phoenix council took a step toward ethics reform, based on the recommendations of a task force (I critiqued the task force recommendations in an April post entitled "Disappointing Report from Ethics Task Force in Phoenix"). What the council did was approve the mayor's ethics policies based on these recommendations, to be fleshed out by staff and put before the council in the future.

Needless to say, the word from the mayor is that, "if adopted, these ethics policies will be among the toughest in the nation." Toughness is, however, not the issue. The issue is, Do these policies create a government ethics program? The answer is, No. Nothing is said about ethics advice, disclosure (except of gifts, which should instead be prohibited (i.e., from restricted sources)), EC staff, the EC budget, EC initiation of investigations, whistleblower protection, or an ethics hotline.

By putting so much emphasis on the toughness of enforcement, Phoenix's ethics reform practically begs for the sort of response made by Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb in his June 13 column. He talks of a "busybody" ethics commission that will "render judgment on such subjective matters as 'unprofessional conduct.'" He pictures the ethics commission as a forum for unfair political battles.

This cartoon picture of what is not being presented as (and does not take the form of) a government ethics program leads Robb to conclude that, "The law should clearly state what is unlawful behavior by elected officials, and law-enforcement officials should enforce those laws. The law should promote practical disclosure. But what is unethical behavior should be left to voters to decide [through recall elections]."

In other words, there should be two enforcement mechanisms for conflict situations that are not handled responsibly:  the criminal justice system, which has nothing to do with such things, and the public, which knows even less about government ethics than Robb and has no way of knowing the facts.

This is what happens when government ethics is sold as getting tough about enforcement, when what is needed is an effective, independent, comprehensive ethics program and an improvement of the city's ethics environment.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics