making local government more ethical
The family firm's $100 million development takes this matter beyond ordinary conflicts, due to state and local laws on officials entering into public contracts with their city. What makes this issue far more serious than an ordinary conflict, which can be dealt with responsibly through recusal, is that both state and local law require the official to choose between his government position and an interest in a public contract. It is this far more drastic remedy that has recently escalated emotions surrounding the council member's situation.

In determining whether a conflict or preferential treatment might exist, another aspect of benefits, in addition to how definite or direct they are, is their proportionality. Stated in the form of a question, Is the benefit at issue just one of many equivalent benefits to a sizeable group, such as senior citizens or property owners, or is it especially large?

The council member took the position that he and his family firm benefited no more than others who owned or had development rights in properties along the proposed streetcar route. In his letter to the editor, he quotes an unrelated state EC advisory opinion that states that there is no conflict if a benefit is not "selective, differential, or in disproportion to the benefit provided to other property in the political subdivision, or the portion thereof receiving the improvements." He insists that his family firm is not being treated or benefited any differently than others. There is no preferential treatment, he concludes.

Indefinite benefits, like indirect benefits, are often not dealt with by ethics codes, and this means that they can cause confusion and controversy. This is one reason I tend to speak in terms of "possible conflicts," because possible conflicts based on indefinite benefits can be just as injurious to the public trust as certain conflicts based on certain benefits.

In the current situation in Cincinnati, it is not certain whether the streetcar project will benefit the council member's family firm, nor is it even certain that the streetcar route will run by or near the family firm's property, as the council member pointed out in his letter to the editor. However, the great likelihood, based on other such projects and the intent of this project, is that it will benefit all nearby properties and businesses.

A government official's relationships -- to family, employer, business -- are very important to determining whether conflicts exist. Both the type and the directness of each relationship are also important.

Here again are the basic facts of the situation in Cincinnati that I will be using to touch on a variety of issues (see the previous blog post for a list of the issues). A council member works for a development company owned by his father and his uncle, but has no ownership interest in the firm. The firm owns or has development rights to nine properties within three blocks of a proposed streetcar line, which has come before the council on a few occasions, and will have to be finally approved by the council. The firm has also proposed a $100 million development project, which would involve tax increment financing (TIF) money and a tax abatement from the city. The development would, it appears, be built near the proposed streetcar route.


According to an iLind.net blog post this week, the chair of the Honolulu Ethics Commission resigned on April 22. Although his letter of resignation provides no cause for the resignation, the chair apparently said that he had been asked to assist a mayoral candidate's campaign and did not want to violate the ethics code.

However, the blog post provides a great deal of evidence that the chair had already violated the ethics code provision on ethics commission member involvement in campaigns:
    A week ago, I wrote about the weaknesses of an ethics initiative in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. This week, in neighboring Lackawanna County, the responses to a March 25 state ethics commission decision has shown truly irresponsible handling of one man's conflicts in two school districts.