making local government more ethical

What Can Ethics Officials Do Outside Their Jurisdiction?

New York City has had more problems with council earmarks than Washington, D.C. (see recent blog post on D.C.), and now the city's ombudsman has come up with a different approach, an approach from outside the council, in fact, from someone with no actual jurisdiction over the council. His plan shows that ethics officers or bodies can make a difference even where they have no actual jurisdiction.

According to an article in today's New York Times, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio will announce today a searchable database of all organizations applying for grants from council discretionary funds (the grants are commonly referred to as "earmarks"). The database will be on a website to be called Open Government NYC.

According to the article, "Though Mr. de Blasio cannot require that applications be entered into the database, he said he was prepared to publicly shame anyone who resisted. 'We think, bluntly, that the momentum this will create will be irresistible,' Mr. de Blasio said. 'We’re going to try to get public officials to cooperate. But if they don’t, I won’t hesitate to point that out.'"

Will shame work on New York City politicians? I think it will. Each council member will have to weigh the value of hiding organizations that apply to him or her for earmarks against the value of showing constituents that you have nothing to hide. If no one asks you to disclose, then not disclosing is okay. If someone in an important position asks you to disclose, then not disclosing is admitting that you have something to hide. The trick is to monitor the information carefully enough to know which council members are hiding information, and this can be mean a lot of work.

The success of the Public Advocate's plan depends on how important a priority it is for him (and his successors), especially down the road a couple of years. I look forward to writing about the first time de Blasio gets on a council member's case about earmark transparency.

There is another problem here. As the Bennett report about D.C. council earmarks shows, transparency is not enough. Someone needs to be responsible not only for monitoring disclosure, but for monitoring the information disclosed. Such information will be meaningless to almost everyone. It will help journalists and others research what is going on, but if they aren't interested, disclosure itself will do little to correct abuses.

But someone without jurisdiction over council members can only do so much. The important thing is that someone like this can act, and it can make a difference. Ethics officers and commissions should watch what happens and, if there's an important issue in their local government, try their hand at making a difference without limiting themselves to the ethics complaint or advisory opinion process.

Other blog posts on NYC earmarks:
NYC Council Member Indicted for Misuse of Slush Fund
Transparency vs. Fear
Council Earmarks Create a Serious Conflict of Interest Situation
The Conflicts of Slush Funds
Form of Government Ethics Issues

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics