making local government more ethical
Some Problems with Mayoral Executive Orders in Philadelphia
On January 25, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter signed three ethics-related executive orders, which I would love to link you to, but cannot. How effective, except as a way to get the council moving on ethics reform, are executive orders that can't be found online? These orders deal with nepotism, family-oriented conflicts, outside employment, and gifts.

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an article based on a long-term investigation of group homes for the developmentally disabled in New York state. It found that "in hundreds of cases reviewed by The Times, employees who sexually abused, beat or taunted residents were rarely fired, even after repeated offenses and, in many cases, were simply transferred to other group homes run by the state." It sounds as if officials were following the Catholic Church's handling of its abuse cases.

How did this happen? Although the state agencies in charge did very little investigating and showed very little transparency, the unions were also major contributors to the problem. The question I want to consider here is, Do public service unions share the obligations of their members? Are they parties to government ethics, or do they somehow stand outside of it?

Another way in which violence and unethical conduct are similar is the way they are handled by the news media. Just as violence is generally discussed in terms of separate battles and wars, day by day, unethical conduct is discussed in terms of separate scandals and individuals, day by day. And unethical conduct is responded to in the worst possible atmosphere.

What this does is prevent an awareness of the problem of unethical conduct in general and what constitutes a poor ethics environment. In addition, like war, unethical conduct becomes a spectator sport. People curse or laugh at individual officials when they are caught. And the whole web of relationships involved is ignored, at least beyond the statement that "All politicians are crooks." Analysis takes a back seat to blame.

I talk a lot about poor ethics environments, probably the single most important element in unethical conduct. But since loyalty is the strongest force in such environments, a great deal of work is done to hide the existence of poor ethics environments. After unethical conduct is discovered, it is rare for anyone to set out just how bad things were.

But sometimes things are so bad, it becomes clear that there aren't just a couple of bad apples, but a whole bad crop. Tamarac, Florida, a city of 60,000 in Broward County (home of Ft. Lauderdale) is such a place. In fact, southern Florida itself seems to have been one big rotten crop of oranges, at least during the boom years.

It is generally agreed that it is best to preserve an ethics commission's jurisdiction over officials and employees after they quit or leave office. There are two reasons for this. One, to prevent them from escaping enforcement by quitting or leaving office. This is especially important because it can take a long time for information to come out that an ethics violation might have occurred, and for an ethics proceeding to be completed. The second reason is to allow for post-employment restrictions. But many ethics codes ignore this best practice, and end an ethics commission's jurisdiction the moment an official leaves office.

This becomes especially problematic when the jurisdiction has strict confidentiality rules, as can be seen in the recent events in White Plains, NY.

What politicians say about a government ethics issue is sometimes so devoid of a basic understanding of government ethics that it's hard to believe that they are not being willfully ignorant (i.e., not discussing ethics matters with ethics professionals) or cynically disingenuous. If only there could be some requirement that, before an official opens his or her mouth to say something about government ethics, he or she actually discussed the matter with someone who does understand it. Not any lawyer, but a professional in the field. Then at least we'd know whether it's ignorance or faux ignorance.

Take what is being said about the proposed consolidation of all the state ethics agencies in Connecticut (my state) in order, it is being said, to save money. I wrote a blog post recently about the problems this consolidation raises, and yesterday the Hartford Courant ran an op-ed piece by Mitchell Pearlman, former executive director of the state's Freedom of Information Commission, making many of the same arguments, and more.