making local government more ethical
Many government lawyers feel that the rules of professional conduct are sufficient to keep them ethical. Because of this, they sometimes seek to be excluded from an ethics commission's jurisdiction (see a recent blog post) and more often argue that the attorney discipline system takes precedence. An April 30 decision by a Michigan attorney discipline hearing panel shows how weak the attorney discipline system is in dealing with government ethics violations. The subject of the decision was a former Detroit corporation counsel involved indirectly in the infamous secret settlement tied to the mayor's sexual text messages.

San Francisco's Conflict of Interest code has an unusual provision about voting on one's own conduct or position. You would think this provision goes without saying, but I can assure you it does not.
    §3.210. Voting on Own Character or Conduct.
    (a) Prohibition. No officer or employee of the City and County shall knowingly vote on or attempt to influence a governmental decision involving his or her own character or conduct, or his or her appointment to any office, position, or employment.

A no-bid or improperly bid contract cannot help but create an appearance of impropriety. And yet not only do elected officials keep defending them, but they also refuse to acknowledge the appearance of impropriety that surrounds every one of them, especially when elected officials and their family members are involved. Here are two current examples, one in Dallas, the other in Richmond, KY, a city of 33,000 about 90 miles from Churchill Downs.


(illustration from illegalsigns.ca, Toronto)


I haven't mentioned billboard companies in my blog. It's about time. Billboard companies can be a serious source of apparent impropriety and corruption in local government. And this is an important time for them, because things are changing in the billboard world. It's no longer mostly about old-fashioned billboards along highways. It's digital supergraphics on buildings and all sorts of 21st-century innovations that require new laws and regulations. But the same old constitutional issues remain.

In my most recent blog post, I pointed out how vague the concept of an "interest" is for most people. I would like to discuss this problem further, because I think it is the cause of much misunderstanding, as well as weaknesses in ethics code drafting.

Update: April 29, 2010 (see below)

The idea of a possible conflict of interest should not be an excuse for a fishing expedition to find relationships between local government legislators and people or contracts they vote on. This appears to be what is happening in Crossville, a town of 9,000 in east-central Tennessee.