making local government more ethical
Here's a clever way to abuse the advisory opinion process. A few months after conduct begins, seek advice from the ethics commission. After the EC tells you it's okay, increase the amount of conduct so much that the advice is no longer relevant, and then point to the advice in defense of the conduct. Finally, refuse to provide information about the extent of the conduct, so that no one can provide hard evidence that there is truly a change in the extent of the conduct.

This gambit is being employed in New York City, according to an article in yesterday's New York Post. It might work in the short run, but in the long run it's a good way to undermine trust in government.

What responsibility does a candidate have to check on those who make contributions to his or her campaign? Is there a greater responsibility when the candidate is running for a law enforcement position, from sheriff to D.A. to judge?

These questions were raised with respect to a situation in Dallas County, where the sheriff accepted large contributions from two convicted felons, according to an article in Sunday's Dallas Morning News.

It's important not to have pension board members with serious conflicts of interest, such as a personal interest in the board's investments, or acting as providers of investment products (see my blog post on California reforms prohibiting such conflicts).

But it is equally important for a pension board not to work with others who have conflicts. This issue has arisen with respect to the Denver board of education's catastrophic decision to get involved in a complex investment vehicle — pension certificates with a derivative attached — according to an article in yesterday's New York Times.

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about intimidation, but I forgot to mention what might be the greatest fear among citizens relating to their local government:  the fear that if they speak out against local officials, especially school officials, it will affect their school-age children.

I was reminded of this fear by a letter to the editor in yesterday's Neighbor News (northern New Jersey). The writer of the letter wants a PTA member to file an ethics complaint against a school board member, because only PTA members received a particular e-mail endorsement. He wrote, "[I] need a brave PTA member who'll admit to receiving it, to file an ethics complaint. Unfortunately, those to whom I've spoken fear retaliation affecting their children's education."

In March I wrote a blog post about a situation in La Crosse, Wisconsin where the mayor brought his father, who runs a refuse business, to meet with a county official about a county solid waste assessment. A council member sought advice from the city attorney rather than the city ethics board, and then the mayor said he would put the matter before the ethics board. His father's company has a refuse contract with the mayor's city.

First Ask for an Advisory Opinion That Doesn't Match the Facts
But according to a La Crosse Tribune article in May, the mayor asked the ethics board "whether it's appropriate to participate in discussions regarding a business he isn't employed by and doesn't have an ownership stake in." His request didn't mention the meetings with the county official, to which he brought his father. In other words, it was a request for advice on a hypothetical situation, when there was a different, real situation involved. This is extremely disingenuous, and the ethics board should have refused to give an opinion.

According to an article in the Tidewater News, a Franklin (VA) council member said at his first council meeting that he felt the city should stop charging interest on delinquent property taxes, since so many taxpayers are under financial duress. The council member happens to be one of those delinquent taxpayers.