making local government more ethical
Does the "broken windows" theory, as first stated in a 1982 Atlantic essay by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, apply to government ethics? The theory says that, if small things like broken windows are ignored, people will think that no one cares and, therefore, they will break more windows and move on to more serious misconduct. It's about setting norms and sending signals.

Forget the misuse of this theory in policing, where individuals are arrested for small offenses, sending them into the criminal justice system when they should not be. The focus of the theory was on fixing windows, showing that people do care, and sending the message that good conduct is the community norm.

Isn't this what a good local government ethics program is supposed to do:  try to prevent and fix the small instances of ethical misconduct through training, advice, and disclosure, so that the big ones don't happen? A good ethics officer should dispose of reports and complaints of minor misconduct and misconduct that isn't covered by the ethics code by talking with the official and trying to get her to understand why what she is alleged to have done (whether or not she actually did it, whether or not there is an enforceable rule involved) might be harmful to the government organization and the community if it were to become (or remain) common.

Chicago's Legislative IG
The battle continues in Chicago over government ethics authority and funding. According to the cover letter to the legislative inspector general's semi-annual report dated August 22, 2014 (attached; see below), the IG's office has expended its 2014 budget and the city council is not willing to provide it with more funds. The council has also transferred campaign finance authority from the IG's office back to the ethics board, over the opposition of both the IG and the ethics board itself, which also lacks the resources to deal with the huge demands of campaign finance oversight, and believes that it is better to separate investigation from enforcement.

As the IG states in the letter, "Since the campaign finance reporting mechanism in itself is essentially based on an honor system which requires self-reporting, it is imperative that there are proactive reviews taking place on a consistent basis to ensure compliance." According to the IG, last year the ethics board was changed from an investigative body to an an adjudicative body, with the IG offices (there is also an executive IG) to take over its investigative responsibilities.

The IG powerfully describes the council's attitude toward ethics enforcement (council members are called "aldermen"):
The Stamford (CT) Advocate's Angela Carella wrote an excellent column on Saturday about a post-employment (also known as revolving door) situation in Stamford. Entitled "In Ethical Questions, Appearances Matter," the column looks at the many problems with a school board member taking a job with a company that manages the school board's construction projects. He resigned his position the day before he accepted the job.

When officials take jobs with businesses their agency oversees, they are seen as using their government service as a stepping stone to help themselves as well as the firms that do business with the government, a win-win deal for everyone but the public. The revolving door puts a question mark at the end of everything the official did in office: what was he giving away in order to get a personal reward? When he acted, advocated, and voted, was he thinking of his future or what’s best for the public?

One of Carella's most astute observations is that the situation was not cured by the school board member's decision not to attend a meeting where the school board voted on a 42% increase in the contractor's fee (partly to create the position the school board member has filled). One reason is that, despite withdrawing from the vote, he did not withdraw from participation in the matter. "[H]e had the opportunity in the months before — particularly as head of the Operations Committee that oversees [the contractor] — to influence board members' views of [the company's] performance as school facilities manager."

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, Oakland's council approved an amendment to the city charter, to go before voters in November, that would increase the authority of the city's ethics commission and provide it with the funds it needs to do its job. Congratulations to the council for what is, in some ways, an excellent reform package.

This ethics reform process began with a June 2013 civil grand jury report, which called for giving the city's ethics commission more authority to enforce ethics laws, and more resources with which to do it. Then, in May 2014, a working group of individuals mostly from good government-oriented civic organizations filed a report that made numerous ethics reform recommendations (see my blog post on it). The council quickly got to work on a charter amendment that contains some of the working group's recommendations.

According to an article last week in the Washington Post, the Fairfax County (VA) Attorney fired one of his office's assistant attorneys because she was elected to the council of a city within the county, even though he and his deputy who deals with personnel matters had given her permission to run for office. In a letter sent after the election, the county attorney explained the apparent contradiction as follows:
“I apologize if you were misled by the apparent ambiguity. I have never disputed that [Virginia law] bars localities from prohibiting its employees from participating in political activities…There is no right, however, under the First Amendment or otherwise that guarantees that an attorney can hold public office.”
In other words, you can run for office, but you can't win. However, it's not a First Amendment issue, it's a statutory issue. Section 15.2-1512.2 of the Code of Virginia expressly allows local government employees to participate in “political activities” as long as they are out of uniform, on their own time, and are not trying to use their position to solicit donations or support. Included in the definition of “political activities” is “becoming a political candidate.” Any reasonable interpretation of this would include winning an election. The only question is whether the office won may be within the county, at least with respect to an assistant county attorney.

Thinking in terms of risk is a great way not to take responsibility for your actions, including your inactions. As soon as you start thinking about the chances that, overall, you might win or lose from a transaction, you have begun thinking in terms of your personal interest. This makes it very difficult to think in terms of the public interest.

You have also begun thinking in terms of consequences rather than in terms of rules. And it is rules, not consequences, that underlie the philosophy of a government ethics program. The reason government ethics is rules-based is that the obligations of government officials derive from their fiduciary duty to the community. Duties are not about consequences, but about following rules.