making local government more ethical
There are several problems with Houston's new ethics provisions, in addition to what I pointed out in my last blog post. Some of them are typical, some of them are unusual. The ethics reform ordinance is attached; see below; the old ethics ordinance can be found by clicking here and scrolling down on the left to Code of Ordinances Chapter 18).

This week, the Pay to Play Law Blog took a snapshot of the status of pay-to-play laws across the country, breaking them down into four categories:  jurisdictions that impose significant restrictions, including debarment; jurisdictions that require disclosure; jurisdictions with limited requirements; and jurisdictions that are considering pay-to-play laws.

I don't intend to summarize these categories; the post is short and clear. What I would like to do is look at arguments made on both sides for the two principal categories, significant restrictions and disclosure only.

Insurance is a big area for abuse in local government. It usually constitutes a sizeable dollar percentage of a town's contracts, and an insurance broker who works in government can use his or her position to get the insurance business of companies that do or want to do business with the town. And insurance is an area few people understand, and which no department, office, or board may be responsible for overseeing.

According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week, the discovery of an insurance scheme brought down the Jefferson Parish president and his top administrator (the parish attorney later resigned, as well). Now, the state board of ethics has filed three dozen ethics charges against them. Jefferson Parish (pop. 400,000) is part of New Orleans.

One of the most effective ways to create a good ethics environment is by telling the full story of the bad ethics environment that preceded it. If someone or, better, a number of people, have the courage and integrity to not only admit publicly to what they and their colleagues did, but to tell it like a story, a group story, it will have a cathartic effect. It will cleanse the community and act as a point where everything is in the open and continues to be in the open. It will make it easier for people to point out unethical conduct, and harder for people to act unethically.

But it almost never happens. There are denials, there are settlements, but there are very rarely honest stories told. New people come in, but no one really knows how new they are, and especially how new their values are.

Tonight a very unusual story-telling about local government corruption will premiere. Reflections: A Man and His Time might be a terrible title, but it is a play about a New Orleans council member, Oliver Thomas, who took a bribe to help someone keep his parking lot contract with the city (he also got the parking lot owner to hire a friend, who gave the council member a percentage of his salary; for the ethics side of the matter, see my 2007 blog post on Thomas). And the council member, who went to prison for his acts, will play himself. The play is based on his prison journals.

It not only takes a number of officials to allow unethical conduct to occur, it also takes a number of officials to undermine the effect of a good ethics program. An ugly example occurred recently in North Providence, Rhode Island, a city where three former council members are awaiting trial for charges of extortion and bribery.

Local government vendor or supplier codes of conduct are not commonly found in the U.S. In a limited search, I couldn't find one. But corporations commonly have them, as do some Canadian cities and some states and state agencies. And they sound like a good idea.

The reason I raise this idea is that Cuyahoga County's new county executive says he will have one drafted (see my most recent blog post). What can we expect from such a code of conduct?

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