making local government more ethical
On January 28, the New York State Bar Association issued a report on government ethics reform in New York State, which includes a section on local government ethics reform. The report points out the many inadequacies of Article 18 of the General Municipal Law (click on GMU, then scroll down and click Art. 18), and recommends major improvements in what the state requires of local governments with respect to ethics.

Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act, which applies to local governments, ends with an unusual provision. That provision is the only provision in the act that deals with enforcement. It says that a willful violation of a provision is a misdemeanor, and that someone guilty of a violation may be fined up to $500 and/or imprisoned in a county jail for up to one year.

Is there any other nation in the world that would allow someone to be imprisoned for not properly going into executive session? And is there any other nation in the world that would use such an expensive, difficult, hamfisted enforcement process for a transparency law?

Local governments cannot afford to do the level of due diligence that corporate compliance offices do on a regular basis. But it is worth looking at how corporate compliance offices and corporate executives deal with other entities that are found to be involved in unethical activities. A report just out from Deloitte, Look Before You Leap: Managing Risk in Global Investments, sheds some light on this, based on a survey done last year.

Before I get into the report, I think it's worth noting the mindset reflected in the title:  dealing with individuals and entities with a history of unethical or corrupt conduct is, from a professional point of view, a matter of managing risk. The risk is not only to the reputation of the officials who deal with such individuals and entities, but also, more important, to the reputation of the local government (there are often monetary consequences, as well).

Update: February 10, 2011 (see below)

Trenton's city attorney and mayor have been going through an elaborate dance in the last week, since the city attorney decided to void a contract between the city and a law firm that made a large contribution to a PAC that supported the new mayor's candidacy. The city attorney's decision was made pursuant to a 2006 Trenton pay-to-play ordinance (a searchable copy is attached; see below). The Pay to Pay Law Blog reported on this matter yesterday.

What makes the pay-to-play law so interesting with respect to this matter is the division of responsibility among the city, the contractor, and the candidate or political committee. The prospective professional contractor is required to disclose any contribution in violation of the pay-to-play law, but the contractor is allowed to cure the violation by obtaining the return of any excess contribution within 30 days after the election. Seeking the return is not enough. The money has to be received within the 30-day period. Hence the committee's role in the matter. The committee, which may be out of funds by the time the request is made, might be in the position of determining whether a contractor can cure its violation and get or keep a contract.

According to an article in The Record this week, a Clifton, New Jersey council member is being accused of dealing irresponsibly with a conflict by participating in a discussion about, although not voting on, the reappointment of two members of the city's zoning board. The conflict is an unusual one. The council member lives near a house that a group of Orthodox Jews are seeking to turn into a synagogue, and she has organized a group to oppose this use of the property. The two zoning board members have also opposed this use of the property as part of a majority that has apparently refused to even hear the group's request.

Last week, the Houston council passed a number of amendments to its ethics ordinance. They were billed as a big step forwards, but I do not agree. In this post, I will look at what people have been saying about the reforms and how the role of the ethics commission has changed. In the next post I will take a critical look at the new provisions.