making local government more ethical
Update: March 29, 2010 (see below)

It is a common problem in government ethics to confuse law and ethics. It is a more unusual problem to confuse law and facts. But this appears to be a problem in La Crosse (WI; pop. 51,000), according to an article in yesterday's La Crosse Tribune. But it's not the only problem.

Unions are paid for by union members, business associations are paid for by businesses, but local government associations are paid for by taxpayers, not by local governments. And yet while unions represent members, and business associations represent businesses, local government associations represent local governments. This setup is asking for trouble.

In my previous blog post, the issue arose of voiding a planning and zoning commission's approval of a permit because one of the commission members had a conflict of interest. Connecticut law automatically invalidates the commission action, without any individual or body having to act. But this is unusual. In fact, most jurisdictions do not expressly provide for the avoidance of permits, contracts, or other transactions.

I recently noted Oakland, CA's odd nepotism ordinance. Well, its Public Ethics Commission is also odd, and worthy of a look. I was alerted to some of its oddities by a recent A Better Oakland blog post entitled "Does Oakland Need a Public Ethics Commission?" An odd question from someone who does not have an ax to grind against campaign finance laws.

Many ethics commissions handle campaign finance and lobbying matters as well as conflict of interest or ethics matters, but Oakland's handles almost exclusively the former, despite its name. It does have jurisdiction over the city's conflict of interest code (Ch. 3-16 of the Code of Ordinances), but this "code" is nothing but an incorporation by reference of a state law that requires financial disclosure and has only two provisions, a basic conflict of interest provision and a provision on loans to officials. Neither the city code nor the EC website provides a link to this state law.

Last week, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley responded to the conviction of yet another alderman by proposing (i) that the Inspector General's office oversee the city's hiring program for fairness, instead of the Office of Compliance the mayor set up in 2007; (ii) that the IG's office take jurisdiction over the council (whose members are called "aldermen") and their staff, something the council rejected twenty years ago, and ever since; (iii) that city workers and contractors who fail to report corrupt activity be punished; (iv) that the IG office's investigative reports be posted online, minus the names of those involved; and (v) that the IG's office get a guaranteed minimum budget. Click here to see a video of the mayor's proposal.