making local government more ethical
According to an article in today's Wall Street Journal, business organizations are arguing that government employee unions have a conflict of interest that should prevent them from supporting candidates for office. "Public-sector unions have a guaranteed source of revenue—you and me as taxpayers," the executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Workforce Freedom Initiative is quoted as saying. The argument is that union dues come from government employees' salaries, which come from taxes.

Indirect benefits are one of the most problematic issues in government ethics. Usually, indirect benefits relate to an official's relationships, that is, where the official receives not a direct financial benefit, but satisfaction or an indirect benefit from a financial benefit going instead to a relative, employer, customer, or substantial political supporter.

But there are other indirect benefits, for example, benefits that go not to a business that employs the official or his spouse, but to the parent company of the business. The official may have no relationship whatsoever to the parent company, and yet not only is there an appearance of impropriety, but also there might very well be an indirect benefit to the official, because helping a parent is often a way of furthering one's career or indirectly helping the subsidiary you work for. Money is, after all, fungible. There's no telling if the benefit did not actually go to the subsidiary, using the parent company as a conduit.

Over-reaction to an alleged ethics violation can be as bad as under-reaction. In Bergen County, NJ, after one of seven freeholders (the county council), at his first meeting, voted to continue to keep county funds in a bank owned by the parent of the company he works for, an ethics complaint was filed and then the county administrator called on all county offices to take their money out of the bank, according to a post yesterday on the PolitickerNJ blog.

I chose to specialize in local government ethics because this is where it all starts. This is where the individuals who become our representatives experience their first unethical environment, become team players, learn the rules of the game, and begin to feel a special entitlement.

One good thing about election time is that we sometimes get the back stories of individuals running for higher office. We get to see how they started. One such individual is Carl Paladino, a candidate for governor of New York State.

A Local Developer Regulating Local Development
According to an editorial in today's New York Times, although Paladino "was an owner of several downtown parking lots [in Buffalo], he won a seat on the city’s parking board, resigning in 1994 amid charges of conflicts of interest. He still serves on the board of the nonprofit corporation [Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, Inc. (BCAR)]  that manages parking lots for the city."

There's a lot to learn from the chief of New Orleans' emergency medical service's past conflicts of interest, which have only recently become public. Despite the compassion one must feel for the official, the conflicts were poorly handled by her and by the former mayor and his administration.

According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in late 2005 the EMS chief endorsed a medical product. A year later, the company that makes this medical product hired away her deputy director, and nine months after that, the chief took a part-time job with the Dallas-area company, which paid her $90,000 on top of her $180,000 government salary, the highest in New Orleans.

An Active EC Is a Good Thing
Local officials often say that because there are no complaints to or advisory opinions by their ethics commissions, their town or city government does not have ethics problems. Actually, it's the other way around. Local governments with active ethics commissions, especially dealing with advisory opinions, are more likely to have healthy ethical environments. It shows that people trust the ethics commission, it shows that people are thinking about ethics issues, and it supplies ongoing instruction to officials and employees in the various issues dealt with, assuming that there is transparency in the ethics process.

In fact, the less transparency, the less trust, and the less use of the ethics commission. It becomes a vicious circle that might appear like a lack of ethics problems, but is more likely to reflect a poor ethical environment.