making local government more ethical
There's an interesting issue at the heart of a judicial inquiry into possible misconduct by the mayor of Mississauga, Ontario. The council sought the inquiry to “investigate any supposed breach of trust or other misconduct of a Member of Council, an employee of the municipality or person having a contract with the municipality” and to inquire into “any matter connected with the good government of the municipality or the conduct of any part of its public business." In short, it is an open-ended inquiry into multiple matters relating to two deals in which the mayor was involved.

According to an article in the Toronto Star, the mayor sought to have the judge narrow the inquiry to handling conflicts of interest as described in Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, that is, only participation at a council meeting, not outside of such meetings. The judge rejected this narrowing with a wonderful speech on local government ethics:
    There is nothing more important in local government ethics than timely, independent, professional ethics advice. And there is no bigger problem in local government ethics than poor ethics advice, especially that given by local government attorneys who (1) do not have a full understanding of government ethics, especially the fact that its rules are minimum requirements, which means that a strict interpretation of the language is inappropriate in providing ethics advice, (2) are political appointees and/or people with an ongoing relationship with the official, and will therefore be viewed as helping the official get away with possibly unethical conduct, and/or (3) act as if they are representing the official rather than the position or the agency or the local government.

    How many wrongs does it take to make a right?

    According to a Sun-Sentinel article, a county commissioner in Broward County, home of Ft. Lauderdale, resigned on Tuesday after being arrested on seven counts of unlawful compensation (§838.016(1)) for ‘‘improperly advocating for, and benefiting from, numerous government grants written by her husband ... on behalf of the town of Southwest Ranches."

    On Independence Day weekend, it's worth remembering that independence does not come cheap, and that there are some things that are more important than independence.

    One of those things is the public trust. There is a serious cost to our society when government officials place their independence from ethics enforcement above the public trust, that is, when government officials insist on legislative immunity. And there is a cost to officials, too:  their trial not by a neutral body in a formal proceeding that the public can have trust in, but rather by partisan accusations and media coverage based on the manipulation of limited facts and a limited understanding of the issues involved.

    You be the judge. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a board member of a Georgia-based insurance company set up ten PACs in Alabama that together gave $120,000 — ten times the legal limit — to a candidate for Georgia insurance commissioner. A complaint was filed with the state ethics commission (not only is there a contribution size issue, but the contributions came from a company regulated by the candidate's office). The CEO of the insurance company is a friend of the candidate, and was appointed by the candidate to head a commission.

    As serious as the appearance of impropriety that arises from the council member's family firm seeking TIF money and a tax abatement from the city is the fact that any developer or member of a developer's family sitting on a city council faces not just the occasional ethical controversy, as has been the case in this situation. Such an individual faces an ongoing series of possible conflicts, most of which do not lead to complaints, requests for advisory opinions, or controversies.