making local government more ethical
In June, the Phoenix council took a step toward ethics reform, based on the recommendations of a task force (I critiqued the task force recommendations in an April post entitled "Disappointing Report from Ethics Task Force in Phoenix"). What the council did was approve the mayor's ethics policies based on these recommendations, to be fleshed out by staff and put before the council in the future.

Needless to say, the word from the mayor is that, "if adopted, these ethics policies will be among the toughest in the nation." Toughness is, however, not the issue. The issue is, Do these policies create a government ethics program? The answer is, No. Nothing is said about ethics advice, disclosure (except of gifts, which should instead be prohibited (i.e., from restricted sources)), EC staff, the EC budget, EC initiation of investigations, whistleblower protection, or an ethics hotline.

In January, I wrote a blog post about the District of Columbia ethics board's first public forum seeking recommendations for ethics reform. On April 17, the ethics board published a report that makes recommendations for improvements to the city's ethics program (attached; see below).

Of the five recommendations I made in my testimony to the D.C. board, only one of them appears in the recommendations. Our principal difference is that the board does not appear to agree with my argument that changes to ethics provisions should be left until all the essential elements of a government ethics program are in place. The ethics board's response to this is that, with respect to "structural and compositional changes to its makeup," it will "reserve any such comment and potential recommendations for future reports." That is, it will take the opposite approach to what I recommend.

This week, San Antonio's mayor and city attorney proposed a number of reforms to the city's ethics code and campaign finance regulations. I will deal here only with the ethics reforms. A summary of the proposed reforms and a red-lined copy of the ethics code are attached (see below).

The impetus for these reforms is a matter I discussed in a blog post last September. The matter was mishandled by all involved, and some of the proposed reforms clarify the procedures to be used so that the next situation would presumably be handled better.

The mayor appears to have taken the reforms seriously. For one thing, his office reached out to me (and, most likely, others) for information on which to make responsible decisions. Sadly, few officials making ethics reform proposals contact me or show signs of having read City Ethics materials.

Applicant Disclosure Is Good for Officials
If Ontario or Mississauga required broad applicant disclosure, Mississauga's mayor would not be in court this week arguing that she didn't know that her son had invested in a huge hotel and convention center deal. According to an article yesterday on the 680 News Radio site, she has been alleged to have voted with a conflict, and could be forced to resign as mayor.

The mayor has said in her defense that she didn't read a crucial document containing her son's name, because she didn't have her reading glasses. She has to plead ignorance, something that, of course, she cannot prove. Had her son been required to disclose that his mother was the mayor, she would have been alerted and she could have withdrawn. Had she not withdrawn, there would be no need for a trial.

“We have a system that only catches morons.”


—Unnamed New York state legislator and ethics reformer, quoted in Gail Collins' New York Times column today. The "system" being referred to is our criminal justice system, which is only able to prosecute government officials who take bribes from strangers (see my recent posts on New York arrests). Is this why most officials seem to prefer to let government ethics be dealt with by the criminal justice system?

“Incompatible offices” is a form of conflict that is usually left out of ethics codes. One reason is that there is a common law prohibition against officials holding incompatible offices. But whether or not the conflict is common law or in an ethics code, this is an important kind of conflict that should be included in ethics training so that it is understood. It should also be a topic for which officials may seek ethics advice.

There are many offices that one individual should not hold, and multiple reasons why one individual should not hold them, but the term “incompatible offices” refers to only a subsection of these offices and a subsection of the reasons they may be seen as incompatible. It also does not refer to offices held by couples, business partners, or boss and employee that might well be considered highly incompatible.

An incompatible offices matter has arisen in Salinas, California. A school board member successfully ran for the Salinas council. The school district is within Salinas.