making local government more ethical

A Special Ordinance Is Not the Way to Provide a Waiver

There are usually many ways to deal responsibly with a conflict situation. But there are also many irresponsible ways to deal with a conflict situation. One of the irresponsible ways is to be considered today in Portland, OR, according to an article on the KATU News website.

The conflict situation involves a police officer who owns a business that sells law enforcement equipment. In Portland, it is illegal for a city employee to be a city vendor. But the police department wants the officer's company to be able to bid.

The most responsible way to do this is to ask for a waiver from an independent ethics commission. To do this, it must be shown that there is an overriding consideration that would make it best for the city to have this company become a city vendor. Unfortunately, Portland does not have an ethics commission, nor does it have a waiver policy. All it has is an aspirational code of conduct that expressly leaves it up to each department and agency to have its own ethics policy.

So what the police department has done is to get the council to consider a special ordinance that would allow the police officer's company to bid on equipment contracts. The only argument for this special ordinance is that it might bring down the price the city has to pay for such equipment. The police spokesperson is quoted as saying that the ordinance is "not awarding a bid, it's not awarding a contract, it's just saying you can bid just like this other company can."

But it's not any other company. Clearly, there is no problem if the company loses a bid. But if it wins a bid, it will create an appearance that it was given preferential treatment or that it had inside information that allowed it to underbid the other vendors. In fact, when other vendors learn that an insider will be bidding, they are likely not to bother making a bid, which could cost the city more money rather than less.

As an Oregon Progressive Party organizer is quoted as saying, "It's not every company that gets an ordinance before City Council to waive standard city codes that are designed to protect taxpayers and our community members from unfair practices." In other words, there is an appearance of preferential treatment even in the presentation of the ordinance.

This is a perfect occasion for Portland to think about starting a real ethics program. Its officials are covered by a state program, but the state ethics commission is relatively weak and understaffed, and it has no waiver provision.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics