making local government more ethical
Is the partisanship of local government elections a government ethics issue? I think it is, partly.

A Good Discussion of a Possible Conflict
It's good to see ethics discussions where both sides have good arguments to make. According to an article yesterday on southcoasttoday.com, the selectmen of Lakeville, MA were discussing the possible hiring of an electrical inspector who does electrical work for the town of 10,000 south of Boston.

Last September, I wrote a blog post about an ethics initiative in Palm Beach County, Florida. A response to numerous scandals, it featured an ethics pledge, primarily for government officials, and a successful attempt to get an independent ethics commission and inspector general for the county government. I felt that the business leaders in Palm Beach County who led the initiative had a good understanding of government ethics, and took a fresh, effective approach.

I cannot say the same thing about a copycat initiative in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, the home of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, called Ethics Awareness. Its ethics initiative, led by a business group and an ethics institute at Misericordia University, is also a response to numerous scandals (see my blog post on the most infamous one), but it lacks the focus of the Palm Beach initiative.

Back in January, I wrote about the California Supreme Court's decision in a criminal conflict of interest prosecution against members of a San Diego pension board. In that post, I wrote about how to solve the problem that led to the case's dismissal: local government employees being considered a class (like businesspeople or senior citizens) that is excepted from the conflict of interest provision (in my solution, a council member over 65 can vote on a senior citizen center, but a council member who is a town employee cannot vote on a town employee pension matter).

Last month, a federal district court reached a decision on the same matter. However, it was prosecuted under the honest services statute (I discussed the statute here). The court found the honest services statute too vague for prosecution in this case, since it was not a matter of local government officials putting money in their pockets, even though they benefited from their decisions along with other local government employees.

Failure to disclose or to recuse oneself, even when it is not legally required, can lead to some big headaches, as can be seen in Portland, OR, where a city commissioner voted on a grant to a non-profit organization where his girlfriend works. Also interesting in this case is the commissioner's use of personal ethics rather than professional, government ethics in making his judgment calls.

According to an article in yesterday's Morning Journal, the Law Director of Lorain, OH (a city of 70,000), advising a council member, said, “If his employer had a direct financial interest, he would have a conflict. But it does not.”

A council member who was vice president of a regional firefighters association (a union), although no longer a firefighter himself, wanted to know if he could vote on a plan to save the jobs of four city firefighters (he had already participated in the matter).