making local government more ethical
On Friday, New Orleans' Inspector General, who works for the city's ethics board, sent off two letters relating to the auditor for the Orleans Parish sheriff's office. One letter was sent to the state's ethics board, which has jurisdiction over local officials, requesting that it take "appropriate action." The other letter, in the form of a complaint, was sent to the state's CPA board.

The subject of both letters was the conflict of interest that arose from the hiring by the sheriff's office of an auditing firm whose lead partner was the sheriff's campaign treasurer.

What is most interesting about these letters is that no local or state ethics provision is cited for the conflict. That is because this is not a typical conflict situation. The reason is that the auditor's relationship with the sheriff is political, not financial (although it might also be personal). Generally, political relationships do not give rise to a conflict situation that may be enforced by a government ethics program.

When it comes to conflicts of interest, is a local government attorney primarily an attorney or a local government official? I would answer this question, "Definitely an official." But recently the New Jersey Supreme Court answered this question, "Definitely an attorney." In fact, had the attorney been an administrator, the opinion suggests, the court's decision would have been different.

The opinion focuses on the standard for determining whether the decision of a local government body should be voided, as tainted by a conflict of interest. The two standards considered are actual prejudice and appearance of impropriety. Different levels of court applied different standards in the case of Kane Properties, LLC v. City of Hoboken. The NJ Supreme Court's decision on the standard was made on June 26. Thanks to Patricia Salkin for bringing this decision to my attention by blogging about it on her Law of the Land blog.

It is a pleasant surprise to find an intelligent conversation about local government ethics in an article and the comments to it. The latest example of this occurred yesterday in the New Haven (CT) Independent, an online newspaper.

The conflict situation involves two instances of lobbying before the city's Board of Zoning Appeals by the city's former Building Official, who retired in April. He was representing the not-for-profit Mutual Housing Association in two different matters.

Several interesting issues arise from a recent ethics case in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans with about 430,000 people. According to an article in the Advocate yesterday, an employee of a large parish contractor sent the following e-mail to a council member's aide, who forwarded it to the council member:
“I would like to schedule a meeting with Councilman Spears to meet with Jim Martin, Vice President of GEC to discuss business development in District 3. Would a campaign contribution make the meet happen any quicker?"
In New Orleans, it is the ethics board that selects the city's inspector general. According to an article in the July issue of New Orleans magazine, it took the city a long time to get an inspector general. The first time an IG's contract came up for renewal, the ethics board voted for it unanimously. The board chair, civic organizations, and business groups all praised his work. The only criticism from residents was that the IG had been too soft on the police department. According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, they felt that the IG had not done enough to support the work of the independent police monitor, who is to a large degree independent from the IG's office, but shares a budget.

According to a New Mexico Telegram article, four Albuquerque contractors sued the city's ethics board, claiming that a 2007 charter provision banning contributions from contractors violates their free speech rights.

Here's a link to the contractors' complaint. And here is the provision they are suing on: