making local government more ethical

Current Ethics Reform III - Prince George's County, MD and Kenosha, WI

Prince George's County, MD
Prince George's County had a big scandal involving the county executive back in 2010. The new county executive vowed to make serious ethics reform a priority, and did some valuable things in 2011, according to an article in the Washington Post. He created an ethics review panel to draft a blueprint for ethics reform; he limited developer contributions to the County Council; he eliminated county credit cards for employees and urged them to rebuff gifts and free meals; and he instituted a data-based process to evaluate nonprofit grant applications "to eliminate what many nonprofit organizations had complained was a system steeped in cronyism."

He expects soon to name an executive director and an investigator for an expanded county ethics office, and to create a hotline. But he backed off on his promise to appoint an inspector general, apparently because the council did not want competition for its Office of Audits and Investigations. It does seem best to have only one investigatory office, but it should not be beholden to either the council or the mayor.

But there still does not appear to be a vision of a government ethics program. In my 2012 blog post on the county's ethics reform proposal, the executive director was supposed to be more inspector general than ethics officer. There was no mention of ethics advice, for example, and the emphasis was on criminal misconduct. It's not clear whether the county executive is interested in ethics advice and disclosure. At least, the 2012 proposal included ethics training.

The biggest problem in the county is not being dealt with:  the council still plays a major role in reviewing development projects (see my 2010 blog post on this).

Kenosha, WI
The news in Kenosha is that the mayor has finally nominated ethics board members, over a year after the city passed an ethics ordinance creating the board (attached; see below).

What is so interesting about Kenosha's ethics ordinance is that, according to an article in the Kenosha News, the council decided to consider, as an alternative to enforcement by its own ethics board, an exchange with another city, most likely Racine, whereby each city's ethics board would hear the other city's complaints. This would be, as far as I know, a singular way of providing independence to ethics enforcement. Here is the language:
The City may enter into an intergovernmental cooperation agreement with any other municipality to provide reciprocal hearing services. Unless there is an objection from the covered person responding to the Complaint, if the City has entered into such an intergovernmental cooperation agreement, notwithstanding the provisions of Section 30.13, the hearing on the Complaint shall be heard by the ethics board of the other municipality pursuant to the intergovernmental cooperation agreement. In the event of an objection by the accused covered person responding to the Complaint, the hearing will be conducted pursuant to the procedures in Section 30.13, the intergovernmental cooperation agreement notwithstanding. An objection by the accused covered person to the application of the hearing process articulated in the intergovernmental cooperation agreement must be made by filing such objection in writing with the City Clerk within seven days of the service of the finding of probable cause upon the accused covered person, or it is deemed waived.
I have supported this reciprocal approach to dealing with both advice and enforcement relating to ethics commission members and staff. But the reciprocal approach is only a partial solution for ordinary officials and employees, and certainly not as attractive as a combined ethics commission that would be able to provide both more professional and more inexpensive ethics training, advice, and enforcement.

The big problem with this idea (if respondents will actually go for it) is, Who wants to volunteer to be on a board that deals only with another city's problems? Another problem is the focus on the independence of enforcement only. What about the independence of advice and of disclosure oversight?

In any event, this language allows the respondent to forum shop. If the local ethics board's members have been selected by an ally, she will choose it. If not, she'll choose the other city's board. How is that going to make the public feel?

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics