making local government more ethical
Four years after I wrote a blog post entitled The Ethics of Today's Municipal Pension Plan Problems, according to an op-ed piece in the New York Times, New Jersey agreed with the S.E.C. never again to fraudulently hide its underfunding of the state’s public pension system. And the Republican candidate for New York state comptroller asserted that — if you do the math the way any ordinary financial analyst or economist would — New York’s pension system is underfunded by tens of billions of dollars and that, as a result, the state is essentially insolvent.

The lead article in yesterday's New York Times was on charities set up by members of congress. I've written a few times about the use of charities to get around campaign finance and gift provisions (1 2 3), but this is an area of special creativity, where new ideas, and new reasons for regulation, arise frequently. For example, the foundation on which the article focuses employs the congressman's son, a Rialto, CA council member, as its CEO and President.

In The Kingdom of Individuals (Cornell University Press, 1993), F. G. Bailey's principal concern is what he calls svejks (pronounced "shvikes"), that is, individuals in organizations who put their personal, but not usually financial interests ahead of the organization, and yet act as if they are loyal to the organization, using its proclaimed values to defend their actions. This is not the sort of conflict of interest that is ordinarily dealt with in government ethics. But what the author says about the conflicts of interest in organizations, including governments, is valuable, and often fascinating.

So in the next few blog posts, I will riff on ideas raised in this book.

It is troubling that legislators insist that legislative immunity protects them in order that they may represent their constituents, and yet legislative bodies rarely have rules to ensure that their members represent their constituents by showing up to debate and vote.

The result is that some legislators, at every level, do not adequately represent their constituents by showing up to work. And often voters do not know. This may not be something that can be enforced by a local government ethics program, but it is certainly a conflict of interest issue. And the absence of rules, and of public responses by legislators to abuses, is an indication of a poor ethics environment.

Updates: August 24 and 26, 2010 (see below)

For those who, like me, believe that neither a mayor nor a local legislative body nor a city attorney has any business getting involved in the government ethics process, here's an example you can use of the mess they can make when they do get involved.

Should advisory board and task force members be excepted from conflict of interest rules? Jurisdictions disagree about this. Some believe that, when a board has no authority to act or implement, the usual rules should not apply. The principal argument is that there are times when a government needs to get people with opposing interests together — such as business and union interests — in order to hash out community problems. Another argument is the need for expertise.