making local government more ethical
In an April 2013 blog post, I wrote about the problems surrounding a Florida state senator's request for a state audit of Palm Beach County's EC. That report, drafted by the state legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, has recently been published, and it includes the EC's response to the report (attached; see below).

In this post, I will critique the audit report. I will not go further into the controversies surrounding the request for the audit. For more on these, see articles in Monday's Sun-Sentinel and in yesterday's BizPac Review. In a future post, I will look at how others are portraying the report and what they are saying about the Palm Beach County EC.

Update October 7, 2013 (see below)

On Independence Day weekend, I like to focus on the independence of local government ethics programs. The public naturally trusts any ethics program that has not been selected by the officials under its jurisdiction. An EC that is not dependent on the appointment and budgetary powers of a mayor or local legislative body can function, and be seen to function, fairly and without bias.

Savannah is a city of 140,000 people, certainly large enough to have a decent, independent government ethics program. However, it lacks one. Its ethics board does no training, provides no advice, oversees no disclosures, has jurisdiction only over elected officials, and has no teeth and no webpage. The ethics board's members are selected by the mayor and board of aldermen.

According to an article in yesterday's Savannah Morning News, two of the three ethics board members have tendered their resignations due to the fact that they made illegal contributions to or endorsements of city candidates. They said they were unaware of restrictions on their political activities.

I don't get it. Such a big deal has been made out of the Bell, CA officials paying themselves big bucks. This was considered the big local government ethics story of the last few years. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitizer Prize for uncovering it.

Yes, what happened in Bell was appalling. But what happened in Luzerne County, PA was far, far worse. And yet, for example, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has two blog posts about Bell, and none about Luzerne County.

The reason I raise this issue is that I feel that government ethics puts too much emphasis on money and the misconduct of bad apples. Although money was involved in Luzerne County, in fact a lot more than in Bell, what makes the scandal so horrible is that (1) it led to hundreds of young people being imprisoned in juvenile detention centers who had done nothing and who had been given almost no chance to defend themselves (this is why it's known as the Kids for Cash scandal); and (2) a large number of professionals inside and outside of the court system knew something serious was wrong, and yet only a handful of them tried to do anything to bring notice to what was happening and bring it to a stop.

“It’s much to-do about not much. I’m trying to run a city, and you’re worried about people’s relationships?” These are the words of Mount Vernon, NY mayor Ernest Davis, who is the subject of IRS and FBI investigations, and now an investigation by the city's ethics board, according to an article in Wednesday's Journal News.

Dealing responsibly with relationships is what government ethics all about. You can't deal responsibly with them unless you acknowledge them, and worry about them a little.

Today, I received a copy of the Dallas City Council agenda addendum for its August 22 meeting. This addendum contains (pp. 11-17) extensive information about a large ($434,495) contract for "the assessment of the City’s current ethics guidelines and the development of an ethics training program." City Ethics was a partner in the losing bid of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

The report on the bidding on this project shows how empty the field of government ethics is of experienced consultants. As far as I can tell, only two of the bidders had any expertise in government ethics training:  the Josephson Institute (with a character-oriented approach) and the ICMA (with an administrative ethics focus). The other bidders are either management consultants, corporate ethics and compliance trainers, or corporate trainers without an ethics or compliance specialty.

For the second time in a year, a local ethics commission has been the subject of a grand jury report. The first was San Francisco's (see my blog post). There, it was a civil grand jury and the focus was on the commission. Here and now, it is a criminal grand jury, and the focus is on the county executive and other officials, as well as ethics commission members. The county is Suffolk, on Long Island, a suburban county of 1.5 million people.

The Need for an Independently Selected Ethics Commission
The Suffolk grand jury report shows an extreme example of what happens when ethics commission members are selected by high-level officials in a poor ethics environment. This worst case was one of ongoing secret, political interference in ethics commission matters and ongoing political warfare that placed the ethics commission right in the middle between the two front lines.