making local government more ethical
Gray areas in local government ethics don't necessarily have to be gray areas.

According to an article last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a council member whose brother is a lieutenant in the city jail has been very vocal in opposing a plan to lease the jail to the county in which Atlanta sits. It is possible that the council member's brother would lose his job if the lease were approved.

Today I came across the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (State) website. MRSC is "private, non-profit organization based in Seattle," whose mission is "to promote excellence in Washington local government through professional consultation, research and information services."

Since what's good for Washington local governments is good for any local government, this website is a good resource to know about. It includes a page of links to sample local ethics codes, a page on Washington state laws governing local government ethics, including the consequences of violating each law, and a conflicts of interest page that includes court decisions and AG opinions.

But, at least for me, the most interesting document on the website is the Public Law Ethics Primer For Government Lawyers prepared by the Washington State Municipal Attorneys Association and revised in 2010, after this blog post first appeared. Although primarily a legal ethics primer, there is an important overlap with government ethics when it comes to the representation of officials, especially when conflicts are involved. The primer attempts to answer the difficult question, What are a government lawyer's obligations when officials act not in the public interest, but rather in their personal interest?

In the hands of politicians, government ethics can be wielded as a double-edged sword, as can be seen in recent events in Mandeville (LA), a city of 12,000 just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

Ethics charges are often not the end, but rather the beginning of a process to improve government ethics. Take a recent instance in Los Angeles.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In English: Who will guard the guardians? This is a question many people ask about ethics commissions. But the question I would like to raise is, Is this the right question to ask?

One of the biggest differences between unethical conduct and criminal conduct by government officials is the matter of proving intent. For example, a bribe is nothing more than a gift to a government official where it has been proven that the official intentionally took a gift in return for certain conduct. In government ethics, taking a gift beyond a certain value is all that needs to be proven to show misconduct. The official's conduct, beyond accepting the gift, is irrelevant, as is the official's intent.

But what about knowledge? Clearly, if it can be shown that the official knew nothing about a gift, that an envelope containing $10,000 had been placed under his porch without his knowledge, it would not be considered receipt of a gift. But if the gift were given to his wife, and he insists she never told him about it, it's still an ethics violation.