making local government more ethical

Misusing the Opportunities Given By One's Government Position

Imagine that you're a county supervisor with a $92,000 salary and, despite the salary, you're allowed to hold an outside job (because the county supervisors before you gave you, and themselves, this opportunity). With a sizeable salary, there would appear to be no reason to work in any field that would create an appearance of impropriety.

According to Michael Mayo's column this week in the Sun Sentinel, a Broward County supervisor wants to take a job as director of "business development" (a fancy word for "sales") with an outsourcing company that provides private clerical workers and emergency dispatchers to local governments. This means that the supervisor would spend his time selling a product to other local officials in the area.

He says he will be "as hands off as possible" in his own county, "limiting himself to making preliminary introductions between city officials and company executives." These are city officials with whom he works and over whom he has some sway, due solely to his government office.

But let's assume he is going to be completely hands off in his own county, that he will never say a word to anyone there about his company. It would still be known that he would look kindly on a city that outsourced work to his company, and not so kindly on a city that either did not or that outsourced work to another company. Officials who spoke out against outsourcing would be seen as speaking out against the supervisor. And those who supported it would be seen as his supporter. Not only would there be an appearance of impropriety due to the misuse of his office to help his company, even without any active participation. The side job could end up becoming a political football, increasing partisan tensions and undermining the relationship between the county and certain of the cities within the county.

It's not all that different from a county supervisor, or his family member, lobbying cities in the county, which Broward County recently prohibited. It is the same misuse of office, only it would occur tacitly rather than actively. But power does not require speech to be effective. It is those without power who need speech in order to be effective.

And what about outsourcing sales in neighboring counties? A high-level local government official is given many opportunities to develop relationships with high-level officials in the region, through political parties, regional bodies, local government associations, etc. These relationships are formed only due to the individual's office.

To choose a side job that allows an official to take advantage of these relationships is using one's office for one's own financial benefit. An ordinary individual would have much less of a chance to get a foot in the door, not to mention make a sale. The county supervisor is attractive to the company not only because of any sales prowess he may have, but because of his personal and professional relationships that non-officials would not have.

The best thing for an official such as this is to choose another job, a job that does not give him preferential opportunity due primarily to the position he holds (or has recently held). Nothing tells the public that its officials are in it for themselves, rather than the public, more than making money off one's government position.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics