making local government more ethical
Update: July 17, 2012 (see end of this post)

Here's an interesting conflict situation from Concord, NH. According to a recent article in the Concord Patch, a state representative filed ethics complaints against Concord's mayor and one of the city's council members. Since the mayor and city manager had not selected members for the city's ethics board, which was established pursuant to a September 2011 ordinance, they went ahead and nominated board members after the first complaint was filed.

The complainant protested that the mayor should not have selected the members of a board that would immediately consider a complaint against him. The mayor did not withdraw his selections and turn over selection to other individuals or entities, but chose only not to vote on his nominees, although he did vote on the city manager's nominees. The council member/respondent also voted on the nominees who would hear the complaint against him. The complainant filed another complaint against the council member for having voted, but accepted the mayor's abstention as sufficient.

Check out a valuable essay on pension forfeiture by Dylan Scott, which was posted on the Governing website in February. The essay looks at the various arguments for and against pension forfeiture, looks at how these laws come about (after scandals), and provides information about state pension forfeiture laws, with links to the laws. It's an excellent resource on this issue.

I was on a panel this week as part of the annual Citywide Seminar on Ethics in New York City Government, co-sponsored by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) and the Center for New York City Law at the New York Law School. The panel was called "Challenges & Solutions in Government Ethics in Other Municipalities."

I want to share two ideas that were raised by other members of the panel, who included Mark Davies, the executive director of the COIB; Shane Creamer, the executive director of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics; and Kathleen Clark, until recently Ethics Officer in the District of Columbia.

A few issues arise in the case of a Pennsylvania state senator who reached a settlement this week with the state's ethics commission that included a fine of $21,000, according to an article in yesterday's Montgomery County Times Herald.

Pennsylvania state senators are paid for the rental of their district offices. This senator's wife (and then the senator himself after their divorce) owned 50% of the company that owned the building where he had his district office, until the company was sold in 2008.

At first blush, it might not seem a problem for an official to rent an office from himself, as long as he is paying the going rate. But what is the going rate? And might the space not have been rented at all if the official didn't rent it to himself? Since these questions are hard to answer, it is best that an official not rent to himself.

For the second time in a year, a local ethics commission has been the subject of a grand jury report. The first was San Francisco's (see my blog post). There, it was a civil grand jury and the focus was on the commission. Here and now, it is a criminal grand jury, and the focus is on the county executive and other officials, as well as ethics commission members. The county is Suffolk, on Long Island, a suburban county of 1.5 million people.

The Need for an Independently Selected Ethics Commission
The Suffolk grand jury report shows an extreme example of what happens when ethics commission members are selected by high-level officials in a poor ethics environment. This worst case was one of ongoing secret, political interference in ethics commission matters and ongoing political warfare that placed the ethics commission right in the middle between the two front lines.

According to the blog of Kansas City, MO's mayor, Sly James, the KC Commission on Ethics Reform will be holding a public hearing tomorrow on its draft ethics code.

It's clear from the draft that the commission made excellent use of the City Ethics Model Code. The result is a good draft that falls short in a few very important areas.

Most important, the ethics commission would be selected by the mayor. The mayor would even select who the chair is, something that is ordinarily left to a board or commission. Any time the commission is seen as letting off the mayor or a mayoral ally, or coming down hard on a mayoral opponent, it will undermine the public's trust in the ethics program. There would be a big conflict at the heart of a program designed to prevent conflicts and to gain the public's trust in its city government. Ethics commission independence, real and perceived, is the single most important part of an ethics program. It is the foundation on which everything else stands.