making local government more ethical
On Monday, Anthony Man of the Sun-Sentinel wrote an excellent analysis of the lobbying elements of Florida Senate bill 846 (a copy of the bill is attached; see below), which was recently passed by the senate unanimously.

The law would prohibit local officials from registering as a lobbyist of state legislators or agencies, except on behalf of their political subdivision. This is a good prohibition, because it is not clear to the state official whether the local official is lobbying on behalf of the city or on behalf of a client. It is a classic situation of wearing two hats. And the local official may be harming the municipality by seeking a favor for a client rather than for the municipality, because such favors are limited.

When a city or county attorney's office does not represent the ethics commission, should that office play any role in an ethics proceeding? I don't believe it should.

But that is what happened recently in Cobb County, GA, according to an article last week in the Marietta Daily Journal. After an ethics complaint was filed against four of the five county commissioners, the county attorney quickly filed a response "asking the ethics board to dismiss the complaint, which she called unfounded and based on non-legal claims."

"The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became — though even to use words like 'corrupt' or 'sinister' made serious people uncomfortable, so Katsuyama avoided them. Maybe his biggest concern, when he spoke to city residents, was that he be seen as just another nut with a conspiracy theory."

This seems like a classic description of the problem citizens have when they understand institutional corruption in a city government and try to get others to understand it. But I changed one term: "city residents" was actually "investors," and this is a quote from Michael Lewis's new book, Flash Boys, which was excerpted in this week's New York Times Magazine.

Reading this excerpt, about the way high-frequency traders took "advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s ... simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not," kept making me think of institutional corruption in local governments. The biggest difference is that it is the local officials themselves who draft loophole-ridden, rules and regulations (or fail to fill the loophones, or simply follow unwritten rules). Even when the rules were originally "well-meaning," they often become the basis for unfair advantages given to certain contractors, developers, grantees, and regulated businesses that, in turn, provide benefits to the officials, their families, their businesses, and their business associates.

The subject of Margaret Sullivan's Public Editor column in yesterday's New York Times is the corrupting influence of journalists getting too close to their sources. In other words, in the language of C.J. Roberts, "ingratiation and access." With respect to local government ethics, the subject would be the corrupting influence of relationships between local officials and those seeking special benefits from the local government.

The most relevant quote in the column comes from Jesse Eisinger, a financial reporter for ProPublica (I wrote about one of his columns just two months ago). He constantly reminds himself why sources share information with him: "It's not because I'm good looking or a nice person. They're all talking to push an agenda."

Consent agendas, also known as consent calendars, are an excellent way to get around the disclosure of conflicts (and, as Dallas showed us in 2011, to amend ethics provisions without a discussion (see my blog post on this)).

A consent agenda is a way to deal, in a single motion and a single vote, with routine, non-controversial items, in order to save often a great deal of time. Board members are allowed to request the movement of a specific item on a consent agenda to the regular meeting agenda, but this is rarely done. Often, few board members have a clear idea what is on a consent agenda. Voting for it becomes a habit, like voting to approve the minutes. However, sometimes matters are placed there, with or without the knowledge of board members, in order to be passed with no attention or to prevent the need for particular members to disclose conflicts they would have to disclose were there to be a discussion and vote on the particular matter.

What should be done when an official withdraws from participation in a matter and gives a reason for withdrawal that appears to be false? Why would an official provide a false reason for withdrawal? There are at least two possible reasons:  (1) the real conflict situation would look worse than the given conflict situation, or (2) the real reason is that the official doesn't want to anger the people on either side of the matter, that is, the official really wants to abstain, but doesn't want to be seen as a coward who has failed to represent his constituents.

A VotersOpinion blog post from yesterday got me thinking about this. It alleges that when a North Miami Beach council member withdrew from a variance matter involving a house that was to be sold for about $4 million, he said the reason was that he might be bidding on the house (not a conflict that government ethics codes commonly recognize, but certainly a valid reason to withdraw). However, his financial disclosure statement says that he is making $80,000 as a teacher and council member, not enough to buy such a house without a lot of wealth.