making local government more ethical
In early 2009, I started out a blog post, "Type 'ethics' into the search line at utah.gov, and all that comes up is Archery Ethics Course Online." That is no longer true. In fact, the state legislature not only has an ethics commission, it even passed a local ethics commission act. And in response to that act, some Utah municipalities have set up ethics commissions or hearing officers, and one group in Davis County is even at work on a creative approach to a regional ethics program, something I have advocated as a way to provide both independence and professionalism at a reasonable price.

Toward the end of a video of the November 4 meeting of the Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, the committee vice-chair says that the testimony he heard was very "troubling." I felt the same way about the meeting as a whole, but for completely different reasons. What occurred at this meeting is as troubling as anything I have seen in seven years of following local government ethics matters nationwide.

From about 20 minutes into the video, the meeting is supposed to be focused on the audit report on the Palm Beach County EC, which I wrote about yesterday. A member of the office drafting the report summarized the report, and then the executive director of the EC effectively summarized the EC's response to the report. The responsible thing for the committee to do was to discuss the report's conclusions and the EC's acceptance and questioning of the report's recommendations. No such discussion occurred.

Two more people spoke, both of them lawyers representing clients who had been respondents in proceedings before the Palm Beach County EC. No one was asked to respond to what they said, and very few questions were directed to the speakers.

Six years ago, I wrote a blog post on apology (including full disclosure) in the medical context. Today's New York Times' "Invitation to a Dialogue" letter from a hospital executive takes this issue a step further to a consideration of the value of individual punishment vs. institutional change. The lesson he provides is one that is important to government ethics, as well.

Court decisions, especially when combined with criminal enforcement of ethics violations, can be very harmful to local government ethics. The court in a Monterey County case involving a serious §1090 conflict of interest matter that officials were not only aware of, but appear to have helped create, has used two recent California court decisions to limit prosecution to just one official. Recently, the official's last-ditch effort to dismiss the charges on the basis of an entrapment argument failed, according to an article in yesterday's Monterey Herald. In fact, a judge barred the official from calling anyone, including his colleagues, to testify in a preliminary hearing on the entrapment defense.

Yesterday's blog post discussed the law giving California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) authority over §1090 of the state code, which deals with contract-related conflicts of interest and applies to both local and state officials. Knowing little about this section, which stands outside the state's ethics code (known as the Political Reform Act), I did a little research into it. It's an interesting provision that has received some interesting interpretations. Here is §1090:
Members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members. Nor shall state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees be purchasers at any sale or vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.
No Contract Where There's a Conflict
The language that stands out is "by any body or board of which they are members." This refers to the making of contracts. But one wonders how this language is applied. According to the relevant section of an ethics training course on the Attorney General's website, "If a member of a multi-member body with contracting power has a financial interest in a contract, section 1090 generally provides that the contract cannot be made even if the member has disqualified himself or herself from actually participating in the contract."

Some good news from California, which takes an odd, hybrid approach to local government ethics. It has a state ethics commission (the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC)) that has limited authority over local officials in the areas of conflicts of interest and campaign finance. And the state has many local government ethics programs, which are all over the place in terms of quality and areas over which they have authority.

The first piece of good news is that the FPPC has been given the authority, with respect to Government Code §1090, (1) to provide written ethics advice and (2) to civilly or administratively enforce violations. Section 1090 deals solely with conflicts of interest involving contracts. In the past, there has only been criminal enforcement of this section by district attorneys or the Attorney General, and advice could be given only with respect to the provisions in the Political Reform Act. For some crazy historical reason, §1090 was never made part of the Political Reform Act, which is the state's principal ethics code.