making local government more ethical
In my previous blog post, the issue arose of voiding a planning and zoning commission's approval of a permit because one of the commission members had a conflict of interest. Connecticut law automatically invalidates the commission action, without any individual or body having to act. But this is unusual. In fact, most jurisdictions do not expressly provide for the avoidance of permits, contracts, or other transactions.

One of the biggest little problems in government ethics is the inability to filter out very minor violations, which can be dealt with either by dismissing the complaint or by requiring, say, an additional training course. It is a waste of limited time and resources to investigate and hold hearings on minor violations. An EC needs to be able to use its judgment to decide when a violation is not worth investigating.

Although it is hard to define what is a minor, or de minimis, violation, it is important to provide for EC discretion where they exist, either in an ordinance provision or an ethics commission regulation. This discretion should not be left to advisory opinions; if it does originate there, it should quickly be added to the EC's regulations or to the ordinance).

An article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer says that the state's inspector general has found that, despite past problems, the South Jersey Transportation Authority has gotten its act together, ethically speaking. But go to the authority's News Clip page, and all it says is "Nothing to Report." After all, a 103-page inspector general's report detailing the authority's ethical misconduct isn't worth reporting, is it? It's a professionally designed website, but there appears to be nothing about ethics or compliance, and no search line to find it.

New York City has had more problems with council earmarks than Washington, D.C. (see recent blog post on D.C.), and now the city's ombudsman has come up with a different approach, an approach from outside the council, in fact, from someone with no actual jurisdiction over the council. His plan shows that ethics officers or bodies can make a difference even where they have no actual jurisdiction.

Especially in small towns, bankers often have business relationships with many people and, therefore, do not make the best board and commission members on account of the many conflicts they have or, more frequently, the appearance of impropriety.

According to an article this week in the Asbury Park Press, in Long Branch, NJ (pop. 40,000) there is a dispute concerning the reappointment of a sewerage authority commission member, not a position that usually creates problems for bankers. But it turns out the situation reads like a question on a government ethics exam.

Special Counsel Robert S. Bennett's report on the District of Columbia council's earmark grants and personal services contracts was made public yesterday by the Washington City Paper. Before discussing Bennett's recommendations, I should disclose that City Ethics was asked by the D.C. council to advise them on related ethics issues, and we met shortly with two of Mr. Bennett's associates, but were not involved in any way in the investigation or preparation of the Bennett report.

It's an excellent report, and its recommendations, especially regarding council earmark grants, are must reading in any city that allows or is contemplating this sort of grant. The earmark recommendations start on p. 97 of the report (p. 100 of the PDF file).