making local government more ethical

Louisville's Middling Ethics Reforms

Philadelphia, Baltimore, and now Louisville have come up with ethics reforms in the past week or so. Baltimore's reforms were disappointing, while Philadelphia's were a big surprise to everyone, and came with a few serious question marks. Louisville's reforms are hardly a surprise, and they stand somewhere between disappointing and true reform.

In Louisville, the council spent two years working on, or fighting about, the city's ethics reforms. The city started out with a decent although minimal ethics code, with an ethics commission appointed by the mayor, with council approval. Few of the code's limitations are addressed by the new reforms. However, most of the changes are positive, providing easier access to some ethics documents, broadening ethics jurisdiction to those who should never have been left out in the first place, broadening the definition of "family," limiting who can be ethics commission members, prohibiting political activity with government resources and employees, and clarifying use of government e-mail and websites.

On the negative side, there are increased penalties for frivolous complaints (I don't know the numbers, but the council was talking about substantially larger penalties than the ethics commission can place on officials), and a one-year statute of limitations (at least from the date of discovery, it appears). Nothing is done to make the ethics commission more independent or to ensure a sufficient budget, there's nothing about such uncovered areas as the revolving door, and no cleaning up of language such as defining conflicts of interest in terms of impairing objectivity, prejudicing judgment, and the like, that is, language that provides limited guidance and creates obstacles to enforcement, especially because the language keeps changing from one provision to the next.

Since I can't find the actual bill, here is a summary of the reforms from a council press release released on Friday:

    Increases transparency by requiring ethics documents and disclosure forms to be placed on the Metro website.

    Significantly broadens the number of government employees who are covered, including persons who have the ability to approve contracts over $10,000 and legislative assistants to members of the Metro Council.

    Establishes a time-frame for action to be taken by the Ethics Commission. Requires the commission meet on a monthly basis to report to the council regarding any advisory opinions or decisions that have been pending for more than 180 days.

    Expands and clarifies the definition of “Family” to include in-laws, grandparents and grandchildren that weren’t previously covered. It also includes anyone who is a member of the metro officer’s household, whether they are a dependent for tax purposes or not.

    Requires the Ethics Commission submit an annual report to the Metro Council, summarizing its activities, decisions, advisory opinions and any suggestions on how to modify or improve the ethics code. The ordinance also requires the Ethics Commission conduct a thorough review of the ethics code every four years, hold a public hearing, and then make recommendations to the council.

    Clarifies and expands what political activities are considered a violation.

    Defines who may be appointed to the Ethics Commission, does not allow for anyone who within the past year has been a lobbyist, member of a metro officer’s family or a government employee, or an elected official.

    Adds additional requirements for the filing of complaints, and increases penalties for frivolous complaints.

    Adds a section clarifying transactions with subordinates, prohibiting a metro officer from compelling a subordinate to participate in a campaign or make a political contribution.

    Prohibits Metro Officers from engaging in political activity with government resources or government employees. It also clarifies what is considered appropriate use of government e-mail and websites.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics