making local government more ethical

What’s missing from new Jacksonville ethics office? Money

No budget or staff yet, despite being adopted by City Council last summer.

Posted: January 17, 2012

Seven months after it was signed into law, Jacksonville’s Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight still has no budget.

Its one employee, a director appointed last month, works part-time but hasn’t drawn a city paycheck since leaving an earlier job in October.

She’s hoping volunteers will help get the new office in gear — and that the city releases enough money for her to get paid again.

How many hats can a local government attorney wear when it comes to government ethics? This question arises out of a state bar grievance filed against Houston's city attorney by a member of the city council.

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle last week, the council member alleged that the city attorney violated legal ethics rules by providing legal advice to her before an inspector general investigation and then to the mayor during and after the investigation. The council member also alleged that the city attorney participated in a review process that he largely designed, and that he gave legal advice on a case in which he was a witness.

Government ethics is dangerous to dating and weddings. That's the message of an article in Sunday's Palm Beach Post.

Because the proposed amendment to the Palm Beach County ethics code's gift provision, just like the current provision (§2-444), does not make an exception for people who are dating, a sanitation worker dating an employee of a county vendor could not accept more than $100 a year from the vendor employee. Therefore, they would have to go dutch until they got married.

This week, according to an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) passed a new ethics code, largely based on the recommended code drafted in October by the Code of Ethics Workgroup, set up by the Cuyahoga County Transition Advisory Group Executive Committee (the transition referred to is a change in form of government; see my blog post on this).

I could not find the final code. But the only major change mentioned online involves allowing county employees with seats on nonpartisan government bodies to keep their jobs (see a West Life article from January).

Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, the authors of the new book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It (Princeton University Press), point out that egocentrism is in our nature. We naturally see the world from our point of view. We squeeze what we see and experience into our view of ourselves. We never get too far away from the baby's concept that the world exists for us, even if no longer for us alone.

Egocentrism (what they call the "egocentric bias") is at the heart of unethical behavior, in the government ethics sense. When the public interest conflicts with an offical's self-interest, that self-interest is what leads the official to deal irresponsibly with the conflict. It is the official's self-serving judgments that lead him to different conclusions than others have regarding what is a fair solution to a conflict situation.

Update: March 19, 2011 (see below)

Last December I wrote a long blog post about the pay-to-play culture of Prince George's County, Maryland. The new county executive and the county's state representatives appear to have been working hard to make changes to end this pay-to-play culture, although you wouldn't know it from the new county executive's transition report, which came out last week. The report focuses on development, and makes no mention of the county's pay-to-play culture.

On February 11, three bills (HB 1076, HB 993, HB 1103) were introduced to the Maryland House that would make extensive ethics changes. The bills would deal with the moribund ethics program by providing the county ethics board with an executive director, and also providing an ethics advisor. They would require the ethics board to meet twice a year, which is insufficient if it is going to be a force in the county and if there is going to be a true ethics program.