making local government more ethical
Defining what lobbying is is one of the most important parts of a lobbying law. Not only are many definitions of lobbying unclear or full of loopholes, but it is difficult to get even a good definition across, because the popular concept of lobbying is different from what lobbying really is.

This can be clearly seen in what has recently happened in the Orange County, FL school district. According to an article this week in the Orlando Sentinel, the school district has a new policy requiring anyone who approaches a district decision-maker hoping to influence a current or future decision or policy to register as a lobbyist, and to report all their phone calls, e-mails, and meetings with school district officials.

They have various names, such as councils of governments (COGs), joint powers authorities (JPAs), and regional councils or commissions, but whatever names they have, these local government associations are often left outside of both local and state government ethics programs. And yet, as the term "joint powers authorities" implies, they do wield power and do spend or affect the spending of money, often huge amounts of money in transportation, water, and other construction projects.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times this weekend, the executive director of a California COG was charged last week with four felonies relating to his use of his office to obtain grants for a consulting firm he owns. His consulting firm has a managing contract with the COG, but in addition it has obtained grants through the use of his position. The COG coordinates efforts among 31 cities, 3 water districts and county supervisors in the Los Angeles area.

Providing incentives to attract companies or get them to expand their operations in a city or county has always been a controversial issue. Incentives are seen as necessary to attract, keep, or expand jobs locally, but they can also be an unnecessary way to get local governments into bidding wars (or what is presented to them as a bidding war) with other local governments, to the benefit of companies who are going to build or expand no matter what local governments offer.

Providing incentives can also lead to ethical misconduct, or the appearance of impropriety. This is the case in High Point, NC, where Ralph Lauren was given both a sizeable incentive to expand (by both city and county) and land use changes, according to an article this week in the Greensboro Rhino Times.

A dispute arose when a council member provided a market survey to Ralph Lauren before the council met on its requests, but after the High Point Economic Development Corp, which recommends incentives to the council, had been dealing with the incentive request.

I recently read Judith N. Shklar's book The Faces of Injustice (Yale U.P., 1990). This excellent essay about the difference between misfortune and injustice would not appear to have much to do with government ethics. But there turns out to be much relevant food for thought.

The principal difference between misfortune and injustice lies in how people perceive and interpret events. Those who cause suffering have serious blind spots that make them interpret the event as unavoidable and unfortunate, when in fact they are responsible either for the event or for doing nothing to prevent or fix the situation that led to the event.

This difference is at the heart of the way high-level local officials deal with government ethics. They do not see their misuse of office as causing suffering. They say, to themselves and others, that what they do is in the public's best interest, implying that the public is wrong to see their misconduct as wrong and damaging.

What is the worst thing a government official can do when a conflict situation becomes public? Is it worse to misrepresent the law, to make accusations against those making the conflict situation public, or to ignore the situation and hope nobody notices?

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has done all of the above with respect to the exposure of a secret gift of $2 million by an association of gambling companies to a 501(c)(4) organization closely associated with the governor. According to an article in today's New York Times, the gift was given, in two parts separated by four days, at just the time the governor wrote an op-ed article supporting the expansion of casino gambling in New York state, and the 501(c)(4) organization added legalized gambling to its list of priorities.

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.