making local government more ethical

The Joke at the Heart of Local Government Ethics Programs

Stephen Colbert has been doing a great job satirizing the current federal campaign finance situation. He has especially made a mockery of the Super PAC, a means of allowing individuals and entities to make unlimited contributions to a candidate's campaign under the guise of independent expenditures. Colbert has shown how weak the rules on collaboration are, how the Super PAC is effectively, if not constitutionally, no different than a campaign committee. (Check out a five-part Huffington Post series on what Colbert has been doing, complete with videos.)

Government ethics could use the same treatment. With government ethics, the joke isn't that contributions to Super PAC allow exactly the same level of possible corruption as campaign contributions (whatever the narrow Supreme Court majority may think). With government ethics, the joke is that at the heart of nearly every local government conflict of interest program is a big conflict of interest.

That conflict of interest is the two, and sometimes three, hats worn by the mayor and/or council. Those hats are: (1) they are officials subject to the jurisdiction of the ethics commission; (2) they are the appointing authority of ethics commission members; and (3) they are sometimes also the adjudicator of ethics violations and penalties.

I have never heard an argument in favor of allowing officials to select those who will have jurisdiction over their conflicts of interest. What is needed is acknowledgment of the clear absurdity of having a conflict at the heart of a program devoted to conflicts. When this is acknowledged, an alternate approach is taken: asking community organizations to select ethics commission members (see my blog post on the jurisdictions that do this).

Considering that democracy requires a defense of decisions made by our representatives, the failure to explain why there is a conflict at the heart of so many ethics programs is more than a joke. It is a travesty of our political system. And yet it happens again and again. It is the norm, although the alternate approach is on the upswing.

So until Stephen Colbert or some other comic turns his attention to local government ethics, it is important that we call our representatives on this. We need to ask them to defend their decision to wear multiple hats in a program intended to prevent the wearing of multiple hats.

And if they don't answer, they should be made fun of. Citizens should act peacefully to draw attention to the travesty that mayors and local legislators make of government ethics programs. Here's one way to do this. Citizens could wear multiple hats to council meetings where government ethics matters are discussed. They could offer the hats to the council members. And when they are refused, they could demand an explanation. They could use this quotation, from Terry L. Cooper's excellent book, The Responsible Administrator (Jossey-Bass, 1998):
    The practicality of conduct is never sufficient in and of itself. Unless a course of action can be adequately explained on ethical grounds, it is not a responsible act.
Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org
203-859-1959