making local government more ethical

Municipal Ethics Task Force in CT Bows to Town Officials

Recently, the Connecticut Task Force on Municipal Ethics discussed a draft report. Neither in the report, nor in the discussion, is there anything about ethics training, the independence of ethics commissions, or financial disclosure. Advisory opinions were not included in the draft, but were added in the discussion. And instead of providing a shopping list of ethics and administration provisions for towns to choose from, they provided only five basic ethics provisions.

Basically, the task force was focused not on municipal ethics, but on rules and enforcement on the one hand, and not getting town officials upset on the other. In the end, the latter was more important.

The thing that upsets town officials most is financial disclosure. Even when a state bill on municipal ethics required nothing more than stating the name of the official's employer, the towns association objected. The task force report ignored the issue totally, rather than acknowledging the value of financial disclosure and the arguments against it.

Rules are free, advisory opinions cost little or nothing, and even enforcement, rare as it is, is not very expensive outside of cities that hire staff. But ethics training costs money. Towns don't want to pay for it. And in the current fiscal crisis, the state, which supplies it to state officials and employees, doesn't want to add any costs. So ethics training was ignored, as well.

Rules may be free, but too many rules get town officials upset. In Connecticut, town officials' motto is "One size does not fit all" (included in the task force report, in the third paragraph on p. 3). But actually they are very happy to see one size fit all, as long as the size is an extra small. And that's what the task force provided: five minimal provisions for every single town and city in the state. You can do more if you like, but the task force is not going to make any suggestions. If they did, citizens might get ideas.

This is interesting, because one of the reasons given for providing these five rules (and an equivalent minimal ethics code for towns that don't set up their own ethics commissions, but choose instead to rely on the Office of State Ethics) is that it will save towns the cost of writing their own codes. Yes, it will, but only if they want the absolute minimum. If they want more, they will have to spend money.

Thus, it is clearly not about the money, but about the minimalism of an extra small size that fits all.

The other thing that upsets town officials a great deal is a truly independent ethics commission. Most towns in Connecticut have a board of selectmen-town meeting form of government. That means that there is no standing legislative body, leaving only the executive body to select the members of an ethics commission. In this way, the majority party on the (usually tiny) board of selectmen selects ethics commission members, without even a legislative body that might reject their choices. And in most cases, the ethics commission reports violations to the board of selectmen for it to handle as it chooses, or not handle at all, if it chooses.

This sort of dependent ethics commission undermines the purpose of gaining the public's trust, and yet the task force did not even mention it. Why? It would have upset a lot of town officials, who like not having an independent ethics commission. If they wanted an independent ethics commission, they wouldn't have fought so hard against giving the state ethics commission authority over municipal ethics.

So right down the line, town officials, the ones who are supposed to be regulated by ethics programs, won victory after victory. And the result will be not only their continuing control over ethics programs, but a continuing misperception that rules and enforcement are what ethics programs are all about.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics