making local government more ethical

(illustration from, 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.

It would be easy to say that politics is a team sport, like football, while ethics is an individual sport, like tennis. But this simply isn't true. Both ethical behavior and unethical behavior can be done as a team.

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?