making local government more ethical
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.

Those who, like me, are fascinated by Vernon, California, the ultimate company town, with an ethical environment that breaks nearly all the rules, will be happy to know that it was given a long treatment in a front-page article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. There are no new revelations, but a few good quotes.

From state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre:  "It's like they said of Mexico — it's the perfect dictatorship because they have elections. Vernon is the perfect corporation because it pretends to be a city."

Using government employees for private purposes is one of the most common ethics code violations.

This violation is especially bad because it involves coercion of individuals, in this case subordinates who are not in a position to say no. Coercion and intimidation rarely occur outside of a poor ethical environment.

This violation also shows a serious failure to recognize the boundary between public and private, which is the heart of government ethics.

And three, this violation is usually the tip of an iceberg. When it comes out, and the government or a local newspaper delves further into the official's conduct, a lot more usually comes out, for the very reason that the violator has a serious problem with boundaries.