making local government more ethical

It's Time for Savannah to Declare Its Ethics Program's Independence

Update October 7, 2013 (see below)

On Independence Day weekend, I like to focus on the independence of local government ethics programs. The public naturally trusts any ethics program that has not been selected by the officials under its jurisdiction. An EC that is not dependent on the appointment and budgetary powers of a mayor or local legislative body can function, and be seen to function, fairly and without bias.

Savannah is a city of 140,000 people, certainly large enough to have a decent, independent government ethics program. However, it lacks one. Its ethics board does no training, provides no advice, oversees no disclosures, has jurisdiction only over elected officials, and has no teeth and no webpage. The ethics board's members are selected by the mayor and board of aldermen.

According to an article in yesterday's Savannah Morning News, two of the three ethics board members have tendered their resignations due to the fact that they made illegal contributions to or endorsements of city candidates. They said they were unaware of restrictions on their political activities.

The Savannah ethics code is short and has very few limitations on ethics board members. They cannot "hold an elected public office nor any other City office or employment," and they are "prohibited from engaging in city election, political activities and from making campaign contributions to candidates in city elections during their terms as board members."

Since the ethics board members do not appear to be ashamed not to have known about these limitations, it is clear that even they were given no training on the ethics code. If they had had training, they could not now say they didn't know.

This is a good time for Savannah to step back and take a fresh look at its government ethics program. It needs to decide most of all whether the city has a program that can hold the public's trust. For example, does the city really want to have a big conflict of interest at the center of its conflict of interest program? I am referring to the fact that the ethics board members are selected by and make recommendations to the very elected officials over whom they have jurisdiction. The bottom line is, Can anyone trust the ethics board if it says that an elected official did not violate the ethics code? I don't think so.

Yes, the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) model ethics code, part of its Cities of Ethics Program, allows this central conflict to exist. But that doesn't make it right.

Did the GMA explain to Savannah why an independently selected ethics board is good enough for Atlanta (and Jacksonville, New Orleans, Miami, Milwaukee, etc.), but not for Savannah? If it did not explain this, it did not handle the issue responsibly, and Savannah should look elsewhere for best practices (for example, Atlanta or City Ethics' best practices).

The city also needs to recognize that the most important parts of a government ethics program are the parts it doesn't have:  training, advice, and disclosure. An ethics program that does not even train its ethics board members is not a program worth having. An ethics program that does not train those under its jurisdiction can only catch misconduct, not prevent it. And prevention is an ethics program's goal.

What should the mayor and board of aldermen do? They should contact five local community organizations, ask them each to name a representative, and have the representatives meet to select replacements for the two ethics board members (or fill all three positions). They should send their selections (two or more) to the mayor and board and aldermen, and these offiicals should appoint members from the list pursuant to the ethics ordinance.

Then the mayor and board of aldermen should hold public hearings not on the ethics code, but on the development of a comprehensive ethics program that will include training, advice, and three kinds of disclosure, and will include a full-time or at least part-time ethics officer selected by the ethics board, to do the training, provide the advice, and counsel the ethics board. City Ethics' free digital resource book Local Government Ethics Programs sets out how to do this, and the City Ethics Model Code includes the language.

Not only can Savannah get the ethics program it deserves, but Savannah can set a new standard for other cities in Georgia, forcing the GMA to reconsider its minimal Cities of Ethics program.

Update (October 7, 2013)
The Savannah Morning News essentially agreed with this blog in an editorial yesterday. Here's an excerpt:
When Savannah City Council created the city’s ethics commission four years ago, the purpose wasn’t to foster a more ethical atmosphere in city government. Instead, it was to create a window dressing. An illusion.

The mayor and council wanted to be called a “Certified City of Ethics.” That’s a mostly feel-good label that the Georgia Municipal Association dishes out to its members, so they can claim to be upright, open and above board in their dealings with citizens.

... [I]f the mayor and council really cared about ethics, they would get serious. They would create an independent ethics board whose members they didn’t appoint. Jacksonville, Fla., has one. It has an ethics director and a process for investigating official complaints, which must be sworn to and in writing (there’s a phone line for anonymous complaints). ...
Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org
203-230-2548