making local government more ethical
"Wheeling" is a term I just discovered. The context is that NJ governor Chris Christie made a campaign promise to deal with "wheeling," and then failed to, according to a South Jersey Times editorial yesterday. Here's how the editorial describes the practice (many NJ local governments prohibit or limit contributions from their contractors):
It goes like this: Smith County has a fat consulting contract with Joe Blow Associates. Instead of giving $10,000 to the Smith County Republicrats, Joe Blow sends a $10,000 check to the Jones County Republicrats. Suddenly, a $10,000 “clean” donation from “Jones County Republicrats” appears in the Smith County incumbents’ campaign fund.
Because Massachusetts has one of the better state ethics programs with jurisdiction over local officials, there are very few local ethics programs, unlike the situation in Florida, California, or Texas, for example.

But there have been some recent ethics reform efforts at the local level. Most recently, according to an article last week in the Boston Globe, the new Boston mayor has appointed members to serve on a new Ethics Committee, which will have the authority to develop annual disclosure statements, establish an ethics training program, and "reassess our internal policies and procedures."

The four EC members include Boston's corporation counsel, a lawyer specializing in government law, a university chancellor, and a former executive director of the state EC.

In Somerville, a suburb of Boston, the mayor has taken an unusual approach in the ethics ordinance he proposed last week. It is a combination of an ex parte communications prohibition and the disclosure of communications. Its focus is solely on elected officials, that is, on the board of aldermen and the schools committee. Here is a description of the proposed rules:

On Monday, Anthony Man of the Sun-Sentinel wrote an excellent analysis of the lobbying elements of Florida Senate bill 846 (a copy of the bill is attached; see below), which was recently passed by the senate unanimously.

The law would prohibit local officials from registering as a lobbyist of state legislators or agencies, except on behalf of their political subdivision. This is a good prohibition, because it is not clear to the state official whether the local official is lobbying on behalf of the city or on behalf of a client. It is a classic situation of wearing two hats. And the local official may be harming the municipality by seeking a favor for a client rather than for the municipality, because such favors are limited.

"The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became — though even to use words like 'corrupt' or 'sinister' made serious people uncomfortable, so Katsuyama avoided them. Maybe his biggest concern, when he spoke to city residents, was that he be seen as just another nut with a conspiracy theory."

This seems like a classic description of the problem citizens have when they understand institutional corruption in a city government and try to get others to understand it. But I changed one term: "city residents" was actually "investors," and this is a quote from Michael Lewis's new book, Flash Boys, which was excerpted in this week's New York Times Magazine.

Reading this excerpt, about the way high-frequency traders took "advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s ... simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not," kept making me think of institutional corruption in local governments. The biggest difference is that it is the local officials themselves who draft loophole-ridden, rules and regulations (or fail to fill the loophones, or simply follow unwritten rules). Even when the rules were originally "well-meaning," they often become the basis for unfair advantages given to certain contractors, developers, grantees, and regulated businesses that, in turn, provide benefits to the officials, their families, their businesses, and their business associates.

In a blog post ten days ago, I predicted that Florida state senator Joe Abruzzo, the sponsor of SB 1474, would realize that the newly amended bill would not do what he really wanted and make the appropriate changes, so that the amended SB 1474 would be consistent with HB 1315.

And so he did. He has drafted an amendment to the amended bill that makes it somewhat consistent with HB 1315 (the new amendment is attached; see below). The amendment is supposed to be taken up by the senate Community Affairs Committee on Tuesday, April 1.

Another mayor has resigned after getting caught by an FBI sting. According to an article in yesterday's Charlotte Observer, Charlotte's mayor, Patrick Cannon, has been alleged to have accepted bribes from undercover agents in return for promises to help them. His alleged crimes occurred when he was a council member and in the five months since he became mayor.

Would it have helped if Charlotte had had a good, independent ethics program, with training, independent advice, and disclosure? Possibly. It certainly would have helped if Cannon and his fellow council members had considered it important to have a good, independent ethics program. If these issues were openly discussed and if gifts, not to mention bribes, were not only prohibited, but frowned on and enforced, it is more likely that Cannon would have resisted temptation.