making local government more ethical
According to an article yesterday on the Voice of San Diego website, yet another mayoral pet charity has been created in San Diego, called One San Diego. The article by Liam Dillon notes that, although the mayor and his wife have no official or financial relationship with the charity, they are very closely involved, to the point where a contribution to One San Diego is effectively a contribution to the mayor, who will likely be running for re-election next year. Not only are there no limits on such contributions, but there is also no disclosure.

The most troubling words in the article are those of the nonprofit's president, a former council president and ally of the mayor: “We’re going to just focus on abiding by the letter of the law.” What he means is that, although the nonprofit could disclose all of its contributions, since by law it does not have to, it won't (however, any contributions the mayor personally solicits must be disclosed). This sends the message that the nonprofit has something to hide, which implies that it is being used for pay to play.

More from St. Louis County municipalities. According to an article in Sunday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, several of these municipalities — with the connivance of municipal court judges, local prosecutors, police officers, and lawyers — use the state's point system for traffic tickets to get more money for themselves. The result is a system of ticket fixing that takes institutional corruption to a new level. Most ticket fixing involves police officers doing secret favors for people, for a variety of reasons, often due to connections with high-level officials. A lot of people know about the ticket fixing, but they are not directly involved. Here the system is more open and more people are directly involved. It is a sign of a seriously unhealthy ethics environment in these municipalities.

Here's how it works. You are given a ticket for speeding or running a light, which means both a fine and an increase in your car insurance due to increased "points" (the point system is state law). If you hire a lawyer to represent you, she will get the charge changed to illegal parking, which carries no increase in car insurance, but has a fine twice that of the speeding ticket (and you have to pay the lawyer).

The word "fiefdom" does not appear in the U.S. Justice Department's March 4 report on Ferguson, MO's police department, but that is what the report describes. What is unusual about the fiefdom is that it is controlled by the council, not by an executive or attorney. It is far from a classic fiefdom, which is why Ferguson has once again attracted my attention. One thing that is especially disturbing is that many of the same attributes appear in other cities and towns in the area (see the report's final recommendation). This is a form of institutional corruption that appears to have become the, or at least a, norm in St. Louis County. It should come as no surprise that St. Louis is in the minority of large cities without a government conflicts of interest program, and that the state's municipal ethics program is weak.

Yesterday, two members of a New York City council member's election campaign were indicted on criminal charges brought by a special prosecutor, who was appointed in 2012. Read this December 2014 New York Law Journal op-ed piece by Brennan Center (NYU) Chief Counsel and longtime New York City Corporation Counsel Frederick A.O. Schwarz, which argues very well that this prosecution was wrongly pursued, replacing the investigation of the New York Campaign Finance Board, which runs the city's excellent public financing program (Schwarz chaired the board from 2002 to 2008). Before the charges were brought, Schwarz called for the special prosecutor to stand down and let the board investigate the matter.

Is it, as Every Voice says in its celebratory e-mail last night, an "exciting victory [that] sent a loud and clear mandate to city and state governments to fundamentally reform the way we fund elections so that everyday Americans can take back control of their democracy"?

Or is it, as the more cynical Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote two days ago, "as useful as a square-shaped wheel," and "will change nothing"?

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