making local government more ethical
Louisiana Incarcerated is an investigative series that ran recently in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. It is a story rooted in an extremely poor ethics environment that, despite vaunted ethics reforms (that many, including me, have criticized), does not seem to have changed.

The series has introduced into popular culture the term "honey hole," one sheriff's description of the cells in his prison, which is the sheriff's biggest revenue generator.

The words "revenue" and "prisoner" should not be spoken in the same sentence, as we saw in Luzerne County, PA and as could be seen for decades in the prison plantations of many U.S. states. It is no accident that Louisiana has, by far, a higher incarceration rate than any other state. When it is in the direct financial interest of local government officials to have more people incarcerated, there will probably be more people incarcerated. That's why the subheadline of the series is "Sheriffs and politicians have financial incentives to keep people locked up."

Update: December 20, 2012 (see below)

It looks like outsourcing may finally come to local government ethics. No, this doesn't mean that a city's hotline will be picked up by someone in India (in fact, hotlines in some localities are already outsourced to corporations). What it means is that the ongoing failure of scandal-ridden San Bernardino County (CA) to come up with an ethics program (see my blog posts on this) has finally been accepted as part of its government's nature. So, according to an article in the Press-Enterprise this week, the county supervisors have decided to outsource the county's ethics program to the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). And the FPPC has agreed to take on the job, applying the laws for state officials and employees to those in the county (the FPPC also has ethics provisions relating to local officials and employees, but it generally does not enforce them itself).

Across the nation, there have been numerous occasions when local government officials oppose disclosure requirements, sometimes even the most minimal ones (for example, the name of an elected official’s employer). Arguments are made about privacy, identity theft, and overweening government. There is talk about rights, but never about obligations.

But the bottom-line argument is that if you require financial disclosure, no one will volunteer for local boards and commissions. This is stated as an immutable fact, although without evidence.

It happens that one of the principal goals of a government ethics program is to increase and maintain the public's trust in their local government so that they will participate more. The result is a more vibrant democracy. And this abstract concept has concrete consequences.

Former Maricopa County, AZ county attorney Andrew Thomas (with one of his assistants) was disbarred on Tuesday on numerous counts related to bringing false charges against other county officials over a period of years, according to an article in yesterday's Arizona Republic. According to Prof. Bennett Gershman of Pace University, "This is a huge victory for good-government people and people who believe that prosecutors should be accountable for misconduct."

But it is a bigger victory for those who believe government attorneys should be held accountable for their misconduct, whether or not they are prosecutors. Government attorneys are rarely held to account for providing poor ethics advice, or poor advice on any topic. They are rarely held to account for wearing multiple hats and failing to withdraw when their roles are in conflict.

I never know where I'm going to find something that inspires a blog post on local government ethics. This time it was an essay by Tim Parks in the March 8 issue of the New York Review of Books, as well as on the NYRBlog. The essay is about Italy, and the possibility for change in its government, economy, and culture. Parks, a British novelist and once literary translator from Italian into English who has lived in Italy for many years, notes two things about Italian political culture that resonated with me here in the U.S.

One aspect of Italian culture that Parks noted was "a tendency in general to foment and then thrive on a gap between the official version of events and their actual course, between rules and practice, appearance and reality." This isn't exactly lying. It's something much more serious, because it is more pervasive and insidious. A lie is something limited. For example, saying you've cut taxes when you've increased the mill rate. What Parks is referring to is a cultural norm where nothing that is said is actually true, where written rules aren't followed in practice, where what you see is never what you get.

On Saturday, I attended a one-day conference on Institutional Corruption sponsored by the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University (videos of it will eventually appear here). Although local government was scarcely mentioned (there was one image of a painting that portrayed the 1930s machine in Kansas City, MO), many ideas that were discussed are applicable to local government ethics.

I will start with the ideas of Mark Warren, a professor at the University of British Columbia, not because he was the first or best speaker, but because, on the train to Boston, I read the online draft of his 2005 paper "Democracy Against Corruption" and found it fascinating. His talk at the conference presented some of the same ideas.