making local government more ethical
Consultants often fall between the cracks of government ethics. They are contractors, but professionals rather than suppliers or construction companies, and they often act just like government officials, only they're not on the payroll. And yet the ethics rules that apply to government officials often do not apply to consultants. Often, ethics commissions don't even have jurisdiction over consultants.

An audit report done by the Los Angeles City Controller for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) just came out. It was commissioned after a consultant acting as a government employee allegedly funneled business to a company he co-owned. The school district, which had done a huge school construction program, wanted to see if there were other conflicts of interest. It calls its consultants CPs, that is, contract professionals.

Citizen indifference and lack of participation is the most damaging result of a lack of trust in government officials. One reason is that a vicious circle is created. When government officials are untrustworthy, and especially when they use intimidation to create the sort of fear that severely cuts into citizen participation, there are fewer people to watch over them on behalf of the public. This makes government officials feel more fearless and act more self-serving and more openly intimidating. And so on.

As an article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times points out, even when local politics is intensely fought amongst the few, low voter participation allows individuals to act in their personal interest rather than in the public interest.
    I chose to specialize in local government ethics because this is where it all starts. This is where the individuals who become our representatives experience their first unethical environment, become team players, learn the rules of the game, and begin to feel a special entitlement.

    One good thing about election time is that we sometimes get the back stories of individuals running for higher office. We get to see how they started. One such individual is Carl Paladino, a candidate for governor of New York State.

    A Local Developer Regulating Local Development
    According to an editorial in today's New York Times, although Paladino "was an owner of several downtown parking lots [in Buffalo], he won a seat on the city’s parking board, resigning in 1994 amid charges of conflicts of interest. He still serves on the board of the nonprofit corporation [Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, Inc. (BCAR)]  that manages parking lots for the city."

    Update: October 8, 2010 (see below)

    There's a fascinating ethics controversy going on in Stamford, CT which raises a number of issues involving time limits, the enforcement of declarations of policy, intimidation, and the roles of ethics commissions and inspectors general.

    Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about a book by Lewis Hyde entitled The Gift, which had a lot to say, philosophically, about gift-giving and -receiving, an issue of relevance to government ethics. I just finished Hyde's book Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, which just came out last month from Farrar Straus. It's a fantastic book about the philosophical bases of copyright and patent law (I used to be in book publishing), but Hyde says a lot that applies to the philosophical bases and the origins of government ethics, as well.

    Intellectual property law, as the book's title implies, deals with a sort of commons, a cultural commons. To define and preserve a commons, one must distinguish between what is private and what is public. It is because the private-public distinction is central to government ethics that the philosophy discussed in this book, especially the philosophy of America's founding fathers, is relevant to us.

    An Active EC Is a Good Thing
    Local officials often say that because there are no complaints to or advisory opinions by their ethics commissions, their town or city government does not have ethics problems. Actually, it's the other way around. Local governments with active ethics commissions, especially dealing with advisory opinions, are more likely to have healthy ethical environments. It shows that people trust the ethics commission, it shows that people are thinking about ethics issues, and it supplies ongoing instruction to officials and employees in the various issues dealt with, assuming that there is transparency in the ethics process.

    In fact, the less transparency, the less trust, and the less use of the ethics commission. It becomes a vicious circle that might appear like a lack of ethics problems, but is more likely to reflect a poor ethical environment.