making local government more ethical

Council Earmarks Create a Serious Conflict of Interest Situation

Earmarks are usually dealt with as a spending and democracy problem. All that money being thrown away on projects no one actually votes to fund.

But earmarks are also a conflict of interest issue, as can be seen in what has come out regarding the New York City Council. I recently wrote about the transparency aspect of the Council’s hidden earmarks. But even if they are not hidden behind gifts to fictitious organizations, there is a serious conflict problem.

The lead editorial in today’s New York Times takes the Council to task on its earmarks program, where $340,000 are given annually to each regular Council member (more to the Speaker) to do with as they please.

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How can politicians be handed cash and be expected to use it in ways that do not personally advantage themselves? They may not put it into their pockets (although federal prosecutors have indicted two Council staff members for directing funds to relatives, and more indictments may be forthcoming). They may not direct it to friends and business associates (although what is to stop them?). But how can they not, at the very least, help community leaders who can bring out the vote for them? No politician should be handed a wad of bills to hand out on the street to voters, because that is effectively what this sort of earmark program is.

The problem here is that everyone who gets a piece of the action has not the city to thank, or the Council, but one individual. No one individual should be able to take credit for spending city funds. As the Times editorial, says, “Council members are allowed to run their districts like fiefdoms they control with a big bag of public money.” When they hand it out, are they acting in the public interest, or in their personal interest? And how will they be viewed, both by those who get a piece and those who don't?

The Times calls for the elimination of discretionary funds for Council members. I agree. Councils are meant to determine policy, not hand out money. They are not elected to be Santa Claus. No, I take that back, they are elected to be Santa Claus, and this is a travesty for democracy.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org