making local government more ethical

Self-Serving Ethics

See update below

Ethics is popular in Illinois right now, so popular that two mayoral candidates in the Village of Niles, a northwest suburb of Chicago (pop. 30,000), are putting it at the center of their campaigns. But it's not ethics as most of us like to think of it.

This love of ethics doesn't have much to do with Governor Blagojevich. According to an article in yesterday's Niles Herald-Spectator, Niles' mayor of 47 years "has pleaded guilty to federal counts of mail fraud and tax evasion. ... He has admitted to improperly using his office to steer village businesses to buy insurance from an agency that paid him kickbacks."

Acting village mayors can't change criminal laws, which seems to have been sufficient here, so they settle for ethics laws to show that they're good people. This is especially important when the former mayor has improperly used village stationery to endorse the acting mayor's candidacy, an unethical twofer. And the village manager was going around with a video camera (a village video camera, of course) asking local business owners (the same ones who bought the insurance from the company that gave kickbacks to the mayor) to praise the former mayor, a tape that could have been used to cut the former mayor's sentence, had it not been for the village attorney pointing out that the camera was misused and the whole project had an appearance of impropriety.

So what did the acting mayor do? He put together a three-member ethics committee, consisting of the acting mayor and two of the other five village trustees (effectively council members). At least one of the trustees on the committee is a vocal supporter of the acting mayor's candidacy. And one of the trustees left off the committee is the mayoral opponent. Does government ethics get any more self-serving?

According to the Niles Herald-Spectator, the committee will be assisted by two attorneys, whom the acting mayor declined to name. "I don't want the press calling up and bothering them," he said.

Well, at least the ethics committee will have independent counsel. Normally, I feel that using the local government attorney is the wrong thing to do, but this village attorney sounds like he really understands government ethics and acts proactively to deal with unethical conduct. I can see why he was apparently left out of the ethics process.

The mayoral opponent naturally does not like the self-serving ethics setup. First, according to yet another article in the Niles Herald-Spectator, she wants to be on the ethics committee. Of course, that would make the committee four of the six trustees, but this is a self-serving exercise, and there are a lot of political selves to serve.

The mayoral opponent also wants citizens to be on the committee, which is a nice thought. A better thought would be to drop the trustees, and hold the citizens. But why would anyone want to serve them?

For an update about what's going on in Niles, ethically speaking, as of April 2009, click here.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics