making local government more ethical
An example I often use for why government ethics laws are only minimum requirements is that these laws cannot include friendships or romantic relationships, because these are impossible to define with any precision. When a relationship is not included because it is undefinable, this does not mean that one should not treat this relationship like any other special relationship and withdraw from matters involving that individual. One should go beyond the minimum requirements of the law and withdraw. Or even consider whether it is appropriate to have such a relationship, any more than it would be to go into business with a restricted source. It may seem unromantic, but personal relationships do involve more than love and affection. And the last thing a local official wants is jokes about how he's "sleeping with" a contractor, developer, or lobbyist.

In North Carolina, there appear to have been some cases of legislative aides dating lobbyists. To deal with the problem, a laughably inadequate bipartisan bill was drafted, instead of using the situation as a teaching point for the idea that ethics laws (in this case, a basic conflict of interest provision's application to special personal relationships) are, unlike most other laws, only minimum requirements. Here's the draft bill (HB 252):
More from St. Louis County municipalities. According to an article in Sunday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, several of these municipalities — with the connivance of municipal court judges, local prosecutors, police officers, and lawyers — use the state's point system for traffic tickets to get more money for themselves. The result is a system of ticket fixing that takes institutional corruption to a new level. Most ticket fixing involves police officers doing secret favors for people, for a variety of reasons, often due to connections with high-level officials. A lot of people know about the ticket fixing, but they are not directly involved. Here the system is more open and more people are directly involved. It is a sign of a seriously unhealthy ethics environment in these municipalities.

Here's how it works. You are given a ticket for speeding or running a light, which means both a fine and an increase in your car insurance due to increased "points" (the point system is state law). If you hire a lawyer to represent you, she will get the charge changed to illegal parking, which carries no increase in car insurance, but has a fine twice that of the speeding ticket (and you have to pay the lawyer).

The Law of the Land Blog has recently summarized a number of California decisions regarding proximity, a conflict of interest issue that, for some reason, seems to come up primarily in California, due in large part, I suppose, to its 500-foot rule.

In the subsection of my book Local Government Ethics Programs on proximity (in the Indefinite Benefits section), I oppose numbers such as 500 feet. My argument is that "what is important here is not the actual concrete benefit or harm, but rather how the official’s presumed expectation of benefit or harm is perceived by the public, based on the only concrete thing the public has to go on: the position the official takes on the project. If an official supports a development near her business, it is assumed that she expects to benefit from it. If she opposes the development, it is assumed that she expects it to harm her business. Since the official is presumed to know best (even if she turns out to be wrong), the assumption is that she is putting her interests ahead of the public interest."

Below are four valuable advisory opinions by the state's ethics commission, the Fair Political Practices Commission ("FPPC"), which has jurisdiction over local officials.

It is important for local government candidates who have serious conflicts of interest to let the community (not just voters in their district) know how they will deal with the conflicts if they are elected. To do this, they usually need to discuss possible situations with an ethics adviser, because it is too difficult to work out a plan on their own. But this rarely happens. Usually, when someone asks the right question, the candidate says she will deal with the issue when it arises, following all the relevant laws.

It is great to see the Chicago Sun-Times asking some good questions and trying to get a conflicted candidate to give more than a promise to follow the law and legal advice. The candidate has some complex conflict situations. An aldermanic candidate in Chicago, Patrick Daley Thompson is a land use attorney, a lobbyist registered with the city, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District  (MWRD) commission, a nephew of the most recent mayor, Richard M. Daley (in office twelve years, and whose law firm is, among other things, bond counsel for the MWRD), and a cousin of a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, which appears to have issued the bonds.

Call for a State Municipal Lobbying Code
It may be a big holiday week and the end of the year, but there has still been some news on the government ethics front. The Boston Globe has called for the state to institute disclosure requirements for local lobbying. According to the editorial, the only rule now is to file a letter with the Boston city clerk when lobbying the Boston city council. One letter about whom is represented and what the nature of the business is. You can lobby the Boston mayor and any board or agency without notice, not to mention the other cities and counties in the state. That doesn't cut it, at least according to the Globe editorial board.

Partial withdrawal from participation is not a sufficient cure for an apparent conflict of interest. When there is any involvement, it can be seen as providing preferential treatment, as being unfair. Once again this is made clear, in the most controversial local government problem of the year:  a white police officer's killing of a black man in Ferguson, MO.

According to an article in Newsweek, the elected St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, is seen as especially sympathetic to the police. "His father was a St. Louis policeman killed in the line of duty by a black man when McCulloch was 12. His brother, nephew and cousin all served with the St. Louis police. His mother worked as a clerk for the force for 20 years. McCulloch would have joined the force too, but he lost a leg in high school due to cancer. 'I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,' he once said." He also spoke out (almost alone) in favor of a continuing role for the local police in the demonstrations that followed the killing.