making local government more ethical

How Not To Accomplish Ethics Reform

Here are three instances of ethics reform that, I hope, would not happen if someone involved had read the chapter on ethics reform in my Local Government Ethics Program book.

Copying a Local Town's Code
According to an article in yesterday's Houston Chronicle, the town of Pearland, TX did ethics reform the way so many towns do. According to a council member who pushed for the reform, the town's ethics code was "modeled on one used by the city of Sugar Land but isn't as strict." [No, I did not make up the names of these towns.]

The new Pearland ethics code appears to take a disclosure-only approach to government ethics, with the council as ethics commission and censure as the most serious penalty. In other words, it does not have any of the essential elements of a government ethics program.

Another council member said she wasn't concerned that the council could judge its own members. "An existing council seemed like a good mechanism," she said. "The process of convening an ad hoc body could be cumbersome." As if this was the only other choice.

Politicizing Ethics Reform
According to an article in yesterday's Boston Globe, Common Cause Rhode Island is seeking to extend the state's gift provision to include gifts from organizations that do not do business with the government (the state ethics program has jurisdiction over local officials). This is not part of an attempt to have an overall better government ethics program.

The goal is to prevent nonprofits that effectively lobby, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), from sending legislators on trips, not (at least at first) by banning such gifts, but by at least requiring them to be disclosed, in order to determine how frequent and large they are.

This sort of piecemeal approach to ethics reform politicizes the process. Oh, look, people will say, good government groups are pissed off about conservative organizations. That's all government ethics reform is about:  politics. This is the last thing good government organizations should want the public to think.

Short-Shrifting State Ethics Reform Requirements
According to an article in yesterday's Baltimore Sun, Baltimore County failed to adopt ethics rules at least as strict as the state's (as required by a 2010 law), at least with respect to, of all things, accepting sports tickets as gifts from restricted sources. The county did pass an ethics reform bill in 2011, but it expressly exempted sports tickets.

In any event, five of the seven county council members did report on sports ticket gifts in their annual disclosure forms: that they hadn't received any. A sixth said he didn't remember. But a seventh turned out to have accepted football tickets from a developer, and didn't report them because it wasn't required.

He added insult to injury by saying, "Does [receiving the tickets] persuade me in any way, shape or form? No." This misrepresents the purpose for a ban on gifts from restricted sources:  the creation of a special, gifting relationship, which creates the appearance that an official may feel obligated to give something back at some point.

In any event, if the council members are not planning to accept sport tickets, why did they make an exception for them? And if they are planning to accept sport tickets, they should at least acknowledge that the problem is not disclosure. The problem is that they broke state law in order to be able to accept tickets, in addition to creating an appearance of impropriety by actually accepting them.

This isn't the first time Baltimore County's council members tried to have things their way. In 2008, the council voted 5 to 2 to change the charter to allow council members to work for the state, despite the opposition of one council member who said, that "the change in the charter might have left people employed by both the county and the state 'open to the potential for political abuse' and conflicts of interest." He was particularly concerned that "council members might 'get political hack jobs' as state employees." Fortunately, this was not enough votes to change the charter.

This would be a good occasion for the county council, and local good government groups, to seek the sort of ethics reform that will give the county a comprehensive ethics program, rather than the minimum (or less) required by state law.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics