making local government more ethical

The FOI Alternative to Conflict Disclosure

In a quality government ethics program, every official and employee involved in a matter publicly discloses any possible conflict and withdraws from the matter. But what if a city or county does not have a quality government ethics program? How is the public to know whether conflicts are being handled responsibly?

According to an article in today's New Haven (CT) Register, the Greater New Haven Clergy Association has FOI'ed a list of city employees and elected officials with immediate relatives who attend or have attended, work/ed with, or are members of any boards or advisory committees of a company, or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates, involved in purchasing a city school to turn it into a charter school.

It's unlikely that such a list exists. Where there is a quality government ethics program, it would be easy to put together such a list from disclosures made relating to the purchase of the school. Also, where there is such a program, the school district, the legislative body, and any other body or agency involved in the matter, would each have an ethics officer who would be charged with making these disclosures available to the ethics commission, which would put them into a publicly available database. And these ethics officers would be in a position to send a memo asking employees and officials to make such disclosures if they had failed to do so formerly, or to disclose a relationship requested by the FOIing party that go beyond what the ethics code requires (e.g., a sibling attending a school owned by a company seeking to purchase property from the city).

Without a quality government ethics program, it will take a lot of work to fulfill the clergy association's FOI request. And if it turns out that there are undisclosed relationships between city officials and the charter school company, it will seriously undermine trust in the government. It's best to anticipate the public's desire to know about these relationships (or the lack of such relationships), and to make sure that any such relationships do not affect government business. This is one of many reasons why an effective, comprehensive government ethics program is so valuable to a local government.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics