making local government more ethical
I wish that a grad student somewhere would decide to do an exhaustive study of a poor ethics environment. Broward County, Florida would not be a bad choice as the subject of her research.

According to an article in the Miami Herald this week, a Deerfield Beach commissioner, formerly mayor and formerly a Broward County commissioner, is the 17th official in this southern Florida county to be indicted on ethics charges in the last five years. Only last month, I wrote about the 16th, the mayor of Tamarac, a city with its own rotten crop of oranges.

Update: May 14, 2011 (see below)

An ethics controversy in Hartford presents a perfect opportunity to show the difference between ethics and law, and the right way to approach financial disclosure requirements.

Here are the facts, as reported in two Jon Lender columns in the Hartford Courant Sunday and Monday. Since the mayor became a council member in 2006 (and even before that), his spouse has collected about $2,000 a month in federal Section 8 rent subsidies as the landlord for low-income tenants under a "housing choice voucher program" administered locally by the city.

The money is all federal money. The city's role is only to determine whether the apartment meets the standards of the Section 8 program and to give the money to the landlord.

This week, according to an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) passed a new ethics code, largely based on the recommended code drafted in October by the Code of Ethics Workgroup, set up by the Cuyahoga County Transition Advisory Group Executive Committee (the transition referred to is a change in form of government; see my blog post on this).

I could not find the final code. But the only major change mentioned online involves allowing county employees with seats on nonpartisan government bodies to keep their jobs (see a West Life article from January).

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.

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