making local government more ethical

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

“It’s much to-do about not much. I’m trying to run a city, and you’re worried about people’s relationships?” These are the words of Mount Vernon, NY mayor Ernest Davis, who is the subject of IRS and FBI investigations, and now an investigation by the city's ethics board, according to an article in Wednesday's Journal News.

Dealing responsibly with relationships is what government ethics all about. You can't deal responsibly with them unless you acknowledge them, and worry about them a little.

With this attitude toward relationships, one wonders what sort of ethics training program there is in Mount Vernon, a relatively poor city of 68,000 in Westchester County, just north of New York City. The city's website has no page for the ethics board. But it does appear to meet regularly, including three times this month after a hiatus of two months.

One of the fascinating things about the relationships that are popping up in Mount Vernon is the fact that high-level officials say they don't even know about some of them. For example, the mayor has a condo in Florida, whose property listing uses a council member's home address. The council member says she doesn't know anything about it.

The council member's business partner rents a townhouse from the mayor, but the council member knows nothing about it.

According to another Journal News article this month, there are seven nonprofits listed at the mayor's home address. "During a brief conversation Friday, Davis appeared to have vague recollections of the hip-hop fund but said he was unaware of the other funds and why they were registered at his home. 'I didn’t know it had my address on it,' he said of the funds’ paperwork." The nonprofits were not listed on the mayor's disclosure statements.

The relationship Davis referred to in the quotation that begins this post is that between the corporation counsel, who is also his chief of staff, and a newspaper publisher/strip club owner, who is a member of the civilian complaint board and has sued the city twice, in cases defended by the corporation counsel. The relationship issue arose because the publisher has loaned the corporation counsel his BMW. They have, at least, a gifting relationship.

Most interesting, the publisher told the newspaper that he has an “attorney-client privilege relationship” with the corporation counsel, who he said has done legal work in the past for him and his companies.

A small city like this is going to have a lot of relationships. Many of these relationships require disclosure and withdrawal. Some simply should not exist. Mayors should not have their own nonprofits. A corporation counsel should represent the city, not act as the mayor's chief of staff. Nor should a corporation counsel take a gift from (or represent) someone who has been on the other side of a case from her and the city (or, in most cases, from someone on her own side of a case).

The rental/ownership relationships are more murky. It's a problem when a high-level official has rental properties, because it can appear that he is using them (and maintenance on them) to reward people who have done him favors (they can also be used for pay to play, where businesses that  want something from the government feel obligated to rent from the official at an above-market rate). If the official is already involved in the rental business, it is best for such properties to be handed over to a realty management company, so that the official is not involved in renting and maintenance decisions. If the official was not already involved in the rental business, it's a good business to stay out of while in office.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics