making local government more ethical

Update: November 13, 2009 (see below)

Massachusetts has been very busy reforming its ethics laws. Most of the reforms involve the increase of penalties, plugging loopholes, banning gifts, and increasing the authority of the state ethics commission, which has jurisdiction over local government officials and employees. Highlights of the reform bill can be found in an Associated Press article and on the Compliance Building blog.

It's notable that neither highlights page mentions the requirement that all local government officials and employees, as well as many contractors, are now required to acknowledge receipt of a summary of the ethics code and to take an online ethics training course. Even though nothing in government ethics is more important than training, it usually takes a back seat to prohibitions and enforcement.

 A few days ago, I wrote a blog post about how several government officials in Wausau mishandled a conflict situation involving the purchase of property fixed up with an interest-free loan from HUD. Yesterday's The State of South Carolina covers two other HUD loan conflict situations in Columbia, which are being handled only a bit better.

In the first case, a HUD loan, administered by the city of Columbia (via an empowerment zone), was used by the mother of a Columbia council member to purchase an office building. Part or all of the building was rented to the council member's law firm. It was HUD that discovered the problem when it looked into how the loan was used.

Update: November 16, 2009 (see below)

On Sunday, the Lexington Herald-Leader took an unflattering look at Kentucky's legislative ethics commission. As in New York State, a central problem appears to be the commission's lack of independence.

Online Training List Updated May 24, 2013

More and more government ethics information and training materials are available online, so that they can be easily accessed at any time. Everything from FAQs to information sheets to plain-English guides to quizzes to videos.

These materials are not only useful to the local government employees and officials they are intended for. They are also useful to those in other local governments who have to draft such materials and create training programs. These materials show both good and bad ways to approach educating employees, officials, candidates, contractors, lobbyists, and the public.

The business coalition in Palm Beach County (FL) really gets it. One reason is that City Ethics' Carla Miller has provided advice. The coalition consists of Leadership Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach County Business Forum, the Palm Beach County Economic Council, and the Voters Coalition. Its positions are best stated in a short essay available at the League of Women Voters of Palm Beach County site.

The coalition understands that no amount of legal or institutional reform will change the culture of a county where three former commissioners were convicted of crimes against the people they were supposed to serve. They realize that the culture itself needs to be changed. The essay recognizes that "culture is created in organizations by an agreement on a vision, mission, a set of values and senior management’s support and reinforcement of those values."

Here's a mind-twister of a situation, from St. Marys City (GA; pop 17,000). According to an article on, four members of the city council wrote the state attorney general asking for a ruling on whether a fifth council member violated state law by refusing to disqualify himself from voting on the proposed relocation of the St. Marys Airport (he owns a business there).