making local government more ethical

Misrepresentations Regarding Disclosure

This week, a citizen in the village of Niles, IL (pop. 30,000) made a proposal for applicant disclosure, something every ethics program should have, but most do not. According to an article in yesterday's Niles Herald-Spectator, the proposal "would ask if the applicant’s officers, directors or partners are related by blood or marriage or reside in the same residence as any Niles elected official, appointed official [or] village employee. It would also require the applicant to disclose information regarding political contributions to any such elected official, appointed official or Niles employee" over the past five years.

The disclosure requirement could be improved. It would be enough to include family relations to elected officials or to any official or employee in the department or agency involved. But in addition, business relationships with these individuals should also be disclosed.

The village finance director said that these disclosure requirements would limit the opportunity to do business in the village, and the board of ethics chair, himself a village elected official, said he was concerned about a negative impact on business in the village.

More specifically, the article said that "some big companies, such as, have already indicated to the village that they would probably not be able to sign this type of conflict of interest statement because it would be too difficult to monitor due to a frequently-changing staff." But what are the odds that Amazon officers (in Seattle) are closely related to or do business with Niles, IL elected officials? And since the disclosure requirement is not really about big companies based far away, couldn't Amazon ask for a waiver if it really wanted to dot all the i's?

The finance director said that some of the smaller businesses don’t have legal departments and would not be likely to submit the forms. Why would a legal department be necessary? The officers or partners of a small business could be individually asked whether they are related or do business with Niles officials. How hard could that be?

And yet the finance director said, “Some of them may just say it’s not worth doing business with the village of Niles.”

In 2010, when annual disclosure of real estate in the village owned by elected officials was being discussed, the same ethics board chair said, "You'll never get anyone to run for public office." (see my blog post on this)

They are simply wrong. Only big landowners who want to keep their land ownership secret, and businesses who get benefits from the village through family relations, make decisions based on such disclosure requirements.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics