making local government more ethical

Transparency vs. Fear

New York politicians are making life hard for ethical politicians. “Present yourself as ethical,” they are effectively telling them, “and everyone will be harder on you when you don’t live up to expectations. Better to create no expectations at all.”

This isn’t what the government ethics community wants to hear.

The new example of an ethical politician caught with her pants down is New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, as we learned from the front page of today’s New York Times.

According to the Times, “the Council budgeted millions of dollars for dozens of fictitious community organizations and used the money later for grants to favored neighborhood groups.” The classic slush fund wearing a clever mask.

Click here to read the rest of this blog entry.

Quinn, who called for ethics reform and transparency, did not start this practice, but she did not end the practice during her first year in office (she said she was only vaguely aware of such a practice). She says that she told her staff to end the practice last spring, but in the fall she learned that the slush fund was still in operation.

The article focuses on whether her story is true or not. But this is not the point. Why didn’t she make this practice public when she admittedly learned about it? That’s what transparency is all about. Trying to sweep a practice under the rug often means that the practice continues, often in another form. Just look at patronage in Chicago.

Whatever happens to Ms. Quinn, there is a good lesson to be learned here. If you find something in government you don’t like, let everyone know about it and make it almost impossible for the practice to continue. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Quinn knew this, but she was afraid to turn her knowledge into action. She was afraid of scandal (and of tattling on her predecessors), and the result was a scandal worse than the one she would’ve had last spring, had she gone public with the slush fund. She doesn’t seem to have covered it up, but she didn’t uncover it either.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics

DonMc says:

One standard for the "bad guys" - LENIENT, and another standard for the "good guys" - HARSH...
This is a mechanism that the "bad guys" will LOVE, as it mutes the squeals from those who would otherwise (perhaps) enforce the law more enthusiastically. The long term result will be a populace in complete apathy, since "nothing can be done about it" and if you try to be a "good guy", you know you are going to be hit even harder, so why bother ?

Ever wondered why there isn't more outrage at the incompetence, stupidity, and outright criminal behavior in YOUR city government ?
People know that that's the way it is, and that it cannot be changed.

This is what we need to change - we need to make people feel that something CAN be done about it.

Sunlight [transparency] is all we [at City Ethics] hope for in working to increase ethical governance.

We figure that if people KNOW that it will be KNOWN, a lot less nasty practices will take place in the first place.

Executive Director,
City Ethics Inc.

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