making local government more ethical
Mixing Election Oversight and Professional Contracts
According to an Illinois Business Times article on April 5, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is chaired by an attorney whose law firm has received presumably no-bid contracts to lobby for city agencies, that is, contracts from the administration whose mayor and alders were running for re-election. In a close race, the chair could affect whether the mayor or his allies were elected or required to face a runoff.

Chicago has a system to independently name members of the election board. This meant that the chair was not appointed by the mayor or the council, but by the county circuit court. However, the board's rules do not prohibit its members entering into city contracts, even though the contracts create a special relationship with the mayor and council.

Across the country, requests for citizen complaints provide not only for complaints, but also for commendations. I happened to notice one of these when I was in the nation's capital this weekend, and it got me wondering why this is not done with respect to government ethics complaints and hotline reports.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if ethics commissions were to ask citizens to file commendations regarding government officials' responsible handling of conflicts of interest situations? First, this would require the ethics commission to describe what it means to handle such situations responsibly, which is the core of government ethics, but is too often ignored. Second, this would emphasize that a healthy government ethics environment can be equally, or even better, created by the recognition of exemplary conduct than by enforcement against misconduct (even though the latter is also necessary).

Yesterday, two members of a New York City council member's election campaign were indicted on criminal charges brought by a special prosecutor, who was appointed in 2012. Read this December 2014 New York Law Journal op-ed piece by Brennan Center (NYU) Chief Counsel and longtime New York City Corporation Counsel Frederick A.O. Schwarz, which argues very well that this prosecution was wrongly pursued, replacing the investigation of the New York Campaign Finance Board, which runs the city's excellent public financing program (Schwarz chaired the board from 2002 to 2008). Before the charges were brought, Schwarz called for the special prosecutor to stand down and let the board investigate the matter.

It is important for local government candidates who have serious conflicts of interest to let the community (not just voters in their district) know how they will deal with the conflicts if they are elected. To do this, they usually need to discuss possible situations with an ethics adviser, because it is too difficult to work out a plan on their own. But this rarely happens. Usually, when someone asks the right question, the candidate says she will deal with the issue when it arises, following all the relevant laws.

It is great to see the Chicago Sun-Times asking some good questions and trying to get a conflicted candidate to give more than a promise to follow the law and legal advice. The candidate has some complex conflict situations. An aldermanic candidate in Chicago, Patrick Daley Thompson is a land use attorney, a lobbyist registered with the city, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District  (MWRD) commission, a nephew of the most recent mayor, Richard M. Daley (in office twelve years, and whose law firm is, among other things, bond counsel for the MWRD), and a cousin of a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, which appears to have issued the bonds.

Call for a State Municipal Lobbying Code
It may be a big holiday week and the end of the year, but there has still been some news on the government ethics front. The Boston Globe has called for the state to institute disclosure requirements for local lobbying. According to the editorial, the only rule now is to file a letter with the Boston city clerk when lobbying the Boston city council. One letter about whom is represented and what the nature of the business is. You can lobby the Boston mayor and any board or agency without notice, not to mention the other cities and counties in the state. That doesn't cut it, at least according to the Globe editorial board.

According to an article yesterday in the Rockdale Citizen, Rockdale County, GA's county commission is having a debate on how to select its three-member ethics board and its alternates. Unfortunately, it's a debate that is being waged with no reference to best practices and almost no outside professional input. It's as if a debate about a construction project were to include little input from or reference to the work of engineers or planners. I point this out not because it is atypical, but because it is all too typical.