making local government more ethical

A Miscellany

It's Not the Dead Bodies, It's the Living Ones
"He knows where the bodies are buried at Metro." According to a local mayor as quoted in an article yesterday in the Surrey North Delta Leader, this is an important qualification for someone going from Metro Vancouver (BC) treasurer to lobbyist for the company that runs the local landfill. It just so happens that the mayor's town is working with the landfill company to extend the landfill into his town. Also last year, the same company hired a provincial legislator to be a lobbyist.

The problem with the revolving door between city/province and a company doing business with and regulated by city and province is not only knowing where bodies are buried, but also having close personal, professional, and political relationships with live individuals in the governments, and knowing and having special access to confidential information that is useful to the company. After a cooling-off period, the information one knows is less likely to give the company an advantage, and many contacts will not be buried, but will be gone from government and not in a position to give the company preferential treatment due to having a former colleague on staff.

For government ethics, it's not the dead bodies, but the live ones that matter.

Privatization and Post-Employment Rules
According to an article on the website this week, Fulton County (GA) is considering the elimination of the one-year wait time between leaving county employment and working for one of its consultants. This is a valuable post-employment rule. But county commissioners are concerned that it gets in the way of privatizing some of the government's functions.

The problem is that privatization is sometimes recommended and accomplished by the very government officials and employees who will profit from it. Therefore, a change to this rule for the purpose of allowing privatization should allow the cooling-off period to be removed only with respect to officials and employees who did not participate in any way in the privatization process.

The best approach to this problem is to allow the ethics board, after a public hearing, to waive the requirement after a finding that the official or employee was not involved in the privatization process and/or that the privatization was sufficiently important and necessary as to override concerns about the misuse of the officials' or employees' position.

Good Advice to New Board of Ed Members
According to an article yesterday in the Ocean City (NJ) Gazette, Ocean City's school board attorney gave some good advice to new board of education members. “You have the authority to sit as a board,” he said. “You don’t have authority, individually, to act on your own. You can’t make any promises. You do not have the authority. It’s an ethics violation to promise someone that you can help them as an individual.”

Transparency Comes to Santa Clara County
It's refreshing to read an editorial in which the editors say that "it's great to be proven wrong" with respect to their estimation of a winning candidate's likelihood to improve transparency in government. Such an editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News this week.

Elected last August, the new Santa Clara County supervisor has gotten the county board to make their calendars public, and obtained "unanimous approval for tightening the county's lobbyist ordinance, calling for more disclosure, an online database and other improvements to the current flimsy rules." Next in line is making searchable databases for campaign contributions and for county contracts.

Considering that the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is right there at Santa Clara University, it's about time the county is getting its act together.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics