making local government more ethical

State-Mandated Ethics Reform and Political Culture

In many states without state enforcement of local government ethics, the compromise position pushed particularly by local government officials is to have the state mandate local ethics codes, but let local governments decide what's right for them. The motto of this position is, "One size does not fit all."

Size does matter, but not nearly as much as is often asserted. A strong ethics code is right for every size town or county. Larger cities and counties can use the same provisions, with a few others (such as lobbying provisions) that are not relevant in smaller jurisdictions. Also, they can afford more staff, hotlines, and the like that a small town or county would not consider. But these can be added on by the cities.

A few years ago, three University of Kentucky professors, Richard C. Fording, Penny M. Miller, and Dana J. Patton, looked at what happened in Kentucky when the state mandated ethics codes in Kentucky local governments.

Their article is called "Reform or Resistance? Local Government Responses to State-Mandated Ethics Reform in Kentucky," and it is attached (see below).

The goal of this article is to determine why different local governments developed codes with different levels of stringency. The fact that they developed codes at all was due to the fact that state funds would be suspended if they didn't, a good way to ensure compliance (compliance was 99.5%). But raw compliance does not mean actual compliance, because there was no oversight regarding the content of the compliance.

Four types of ethics provision were required, but these were not spelled out in much detail:  standards of conduct, financial disclosure, nepotism, and enforcement.

What's fascinating about this study (besides the fact that size was not considered a factor) is all the ways local governments managed to water down their ethics reform. One way was to limit application. 80% of counties and 28% of cities limited application of their ethics codes to elected officials. Some employed a nearly impossible burden of proof, such as "clear and convincing evidence" that gifts were intended to influence officials. Some codes explicitly permitted the acceptance of gifts from those doing business with the government. And some went so far as to say that there are no ethical requirements at all, which is, when you think of it, a clear standard of conduct.

As for financial disclosure, one city required disclosure only of sources of income greater than $1 million. The mayor of a town that put the limit at $250,000 said, "The state said you have to give them a number, so that's what we give them."

Nepotism was explicitly prohibited by only 55% of cities. Other cities and counties chipped away at this prohibition by allowing one or more family members.

Enforcement is the easiest to get around. One popular method in Kentucky, as elsewhere, is to provide for an ethics commission, but not actually form one. Another way is to form one, but have it never meet. I have little doubt that elected officials took control of ethics commission selection nearly everywhere.

But the authors were more interested in why some cities and counties actually did do meaningful ethics reform, despite the state's lack of interest in the program and despite resistance from many local officials. They noted that several studies have shown that when state oversight is weak and policy goals vague, there is increased local resistance.

The authors felt that the differences in ethics reform could come from three types of variable

1. The values of the local political culture.
2. The local socioeconomic environment.
3. The accountability of local elected officials (level of political participation, degree of electoral competition, local media presence).

By values, they meant primarily citizen tolerance for unethical behavior. Traditionalistic cultures, maintainers of the status quo, tend toward acceptance of personal gain by people in politics. Individualistic cultures are less tolerant of this. Moralistic cultures (reportedly not very prevalent in Kentucky) are intolerant of private gain in public life.

One interesting fact is that nearly every city wrote at least one strong provision, as the authors defined it (not so strong in my book). It wasn't all or nothing, at least in the cities (they left out the counties for some reason).

The conclusion was that socioeconomic and educational factors did not explain the differences in stringency level of ethics codes. But the local political culture did. Cities where political competition was high, where there was a strong local media presence, and the culture was supportive of ethics reform were far more likely to pass strong ethics provisions.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics