making local government more ethical

Looking at government ethics through the appearance standard, as Dennis Thompson did in his book Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption, reveals the great importance of independence to ethics advice and enforcement. No one is in a worse position to see appearances of impropriety than someone who considers his motives to be good, and his goals to be of utmost importance. This is not the mark of a corrupt individual, but rather a common human characteristic. A legislator not only has an obligation to respect people's reasonable reactions to her conduct, but equally has an obligation to recognize how hard it is for her and her colleagues to know how people will react to what they feel is good or, at least, legal conduct.

Monday evening, I learned about the serious consequences that can result from not giving ethics commission members a clear understanding of what government ethics is, and what it is not.

The occasion was the consideration by the Democracy Fund board, which oversees the public campaign financing program in New Haven, of a possible violation of the program's ordinance and regulations.

I am the Democracy Fund Administrator. Focused on the topics before the board, I never stepped back and gave board members a clear idea of where their program stands in the world of government ethics and what government ethics means, what its goals are, what its boundaries are, etc. I thought it would be enough to understand the role of a public campaign financing program. It is not.

Sometimes, conflicts are built right into ethics laws, partly because it is in the political interest of those with conflicts, and partly because they don't even view those laws as ethics laws.

A good example of this is the Connecticut law (CGS §9-623) that places enforcement of municipal campaign finance laws in the hands of city and town clerks. In Connecticut, clerks are often elected officials who usually run on a ticket with mayoral or first selectman candidates, and on a party ticket with other elected officials. In smaller towns, they are appointed by the board of selectmen.

How many hats can a local government attorney wear when it comes to government ethics? This question arises out of a state bar grievance filed against Houston's city attorney by a member of the city council.

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle last week, the council member alleged that the city attorney violated legal ethics rules by providing legal advice to her before an inspector general investigation and then to the mayor during and after the investigation. The council member also alleged that the city attorney participated in a review process that he largely designed, and that he gave legal advice on a case in which he was a witness.

The way elected officials often think about government ethics enforcement, it's almost as if they weren't being investigated and given a hearing, but were being stoned. And in a certain sense, that is what is happening.

According to an article in the New York Times last week, David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, has noted that one of the biggest differences between us and our ancestor the chimpanzee is that, “Chimps are very smart, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust.”

The power of the pen is great, and one place that it is especially powerful in the field of government ethics is in summaries and directions. Those who write summaries of ethics laws and directions for filing complaints or other forms can have an enormous effect on government ethics, either intentionally or negligently, by mischaracterizing ethics laws and procedures.

Take, for example, the directions for filing a complaint in Chula Vista, CA. They aren't exactly directions, but they're on the back of the one-page complaint form, so they will be read as directions.