making local government more ethical
Local party committees have a great deal of power. Most of the people we vote for have been selected and, where allowed by law, endorsed by local party committees. Most of the people who are appointed to boards and commmissions have also been approved by local party committees. In most places, they determine who runs our communities.

One of the principal roles a political party has, at least in theory, is assuring the public that its candidates have been screened in some valuable way. Anyone can put her name on a ballot, but what do we know about her? Can we know if she is competent, decent, sane? If she has been approved by a party, people have met her, worked with her, asked her questions. The question is, Does a political party have a responsibility to choose candidates who are ethical? Or, to put it the other way, what is the responsibility of a political party when someone it chooses acts unethically, not in a minor way, but in a serious way?

Usually, in government ethics situations, local officials can get away with doing nothing, especially when the conflict isn't theirs. Few ethics codes have provisions prohibiting complicity in and requiring the reporting of others' ethics violations (see the City Ethics Model Code's provision for a provision that covers both).

That's why I found it refreshing to come across an old editorial (from 2006) excoriating a county commissioner for doing nothing in the face of others' ethics problems. The election-time editorial from the Zanesville (OH) Times Recorder criticized the county commissioner for "sitting on the sidelines" for eight years as scandals "rocked" the county government, for example, another of the three commissioners lining up a sweetheart job for his wife, and ethics allegations involving the port authority president and the county engineer.

The boom years of the Oughts were very good to Gwinnett County, a suburban Atlanta county of 800,000 that grew by a third in the last decade. But boom times are rarely good for local government ethics, and Gwinnett County appears to be no exception. A grand jury report unsealed in October (a searchable copy is attached; see below) found a series of land acquisitions by the county at above market price (even after the boom years ended) and from individuals with whom certain county commissioners had relationships and, possibly, from whom they were taking bribes and kickbacks (see an article on the grand jury report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). So far, two county commissioners and one judge have resigned.

In three blog posts, I will look at what happened, at the ethics reforms recommended by a 2007 report and by the grand jury, and at how recommended ethics reforms have been greeted by the county commissioners.

Insurance is a big area for abuse in local government. It usually constitutes a sizeable dollar percentage of a town's contracts, and an insurance broker who works in government can use his or her position to get the insurance business of companies that do or want to do business with the town. And insurance is an area few people understand, and which no department, office, or board may be responsible for overseeing.

According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week, the discovery of an insurance scheme brought down the Jefferson Parish president and his top administrator (the parish attorney later resigned, as well). Now, the state board of ethics has filed three dozen ethics charges against them. Jefferson Parish (pop. 400,000) is part of New Orleans.

Oxytocin is a hormone released by the hypothalamus portion of the brain which, among other things, makes people trust each other more. In other words, one could argue that local government ethics seeks to increase the release of oxytocin in the brains of people when they think about their local government.

An article in today's New York Times discusses a study that shows how the positive effects of oxytocin tend to be limited to an individual's in-group. The study focuses on ethnicity, but it would seem to apply equally to any us-them division.

While government ethics tends to focus on the public's trust in government, which is essential to citizens' participation in their local government as well as to their support for what their government is trying to accomplish in the community, trust – and the lack of trust – is also important within the government. Nothing creates a worse ethics environment than the strong feelings of loyalty that accompany an us-them mentality.

It not only takes a number of officials to allow unethical conduct to occur, it also takes a number of officials to undermine the effect of a good ethics program. An ugly example occurred recently in North Providence, Rhode Island, a city where three former council members are awaiting trial for charges of extortion and bribery.