making local government more ethical
Two months ago, I pointed out Patricia Salkin's new summary of 2009 reported cases dealing with ethical aspects of local government land use matters. I'm finally getting around to analyzing one of them that provides a fascinating perspective on why conflicts of interest are important. The decision shows that, when you look at the reasons behind conflict rules, you take a far more broad-minded, less technical approach to possible conflict situations. It makes it clear that ethics training should focus less on rules than on the reasons behind them.

Tallahassee takes a compliance approach to ethics. Its ethics code is aspirational, based on core values. Its ethics training employs a Character First approach. Conflicts of interest are only a small portion of a program that ranges from personnel and transparency issues to harassment, discrimination, and fraud.

This is not the sort of ethics program usually discussed in this blog, because it is not what is traditionally referred to as "government ethics." But since the city government calls it an ethics program, it is important to look at what it is and how it differs from a traditional program.

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.