making local government more ethical
Update: March 29, 2010 (see below)

It is a common problem in government ethics to confuse law and ethics. It is a more unusual problem to confuse law and facts. But this appears to be a problem in La Crosse (WI; pop. 51,000), according to an article in yesterday's La Crosse Tribune. But it's not the only problem.

Have you ever wondered how a local government department head can afford to live like a king on a $100,000 salary?

This is what people are wondering in South Africa, where union leaders are calling for "lifestyle audits" of all senior government officials in order to find out who is on the take, according to an article in today's New York Times. According to an article in The Mercury this week, the nation's Public Service Commission wants to perform these audits, because government departments have ignored its complaints about senior officials who have failed for many years to file financial disclosure statements.

It's been four months since my latest update on San Bernardino County's failure to follow grand jury ethics reform recommendations with any action. An op-ed piece by Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, in this week's San Bernardino Sun calls for campaign contribution limits (there are currently none at all), a prohibition on off-year fundraising, disclosure requirements, and an ethics commission to enforce the law.

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.