making local government more ethical
“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.

A post yesterday in Coates' Canons: NC Local Government Law Blog raises an interesting issue about the situation of a local government candidate who has an interest in a contract with the local government which, by NC law, is prohibited not for candidates, but for a winning candidate the day he or she takes office. This provides a good occasion to look at the intersection of candidates and local government ethics codes, outside of the more common campaign finance issues.

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.