making local government more ethical
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"?

It is important for local government candidates who have serious conflicts of interest to let the community (not just voters in their district) know how they will deal with the conflicts if they are elected. To do this, they usually need to discuss possible situations with an ethics adviser, because it is too difficult to work out a plan on their own. But this rarely happens. Usually, when someone asks the right question, the candidate says she will deal with the issue when it arises, following all the relevant laws.

It is great to see the Chicago Sun-Times asking some good questions and trying to get a conflicted candidate to give more than a promise to follow the law and legal advice. The candidate has some complex conflict situations. An aldermanic candidate in Chicago, Patrick Daley Thompson is a land use attorney, a lobbyist registered with the city, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District  (MWRD) commission, a nephew of the most recent mayor, Richard M. Daley (in office twelve years, and whose law firm is, among other things, bond counsel for the MWRD), and a cousin of a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, which appears to have issued the bonds.

Even the most enthusiastic good government politicians often have a serious blind spot:  themselves. They believe that everyone else is into pay to play and selling out to big contributors. But not them. They're only doing what's best for their city.  They have only the community's best interests in mind. And sometimes the community needs those big contributors, and who but he is best situated to get them to open their wallets? However, the big contributors don't have the same blind spot, so they don't want the public to know how much they're shelling out. This means that, adding insult to injury, the big contributions are not disclosed. There is no transparency. At least until it all comes out, which it eventually does.

This time, it came out in an article on the WNYC Radio website by Andrea Bernstein. The politician with the big blind spot (he's 6' 5") is New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. And what he's raising millions of dollars for is trying to lure the Democratic Party convention to Brooklyn, to show that he can get the money together to pay for a lot of the costs.

Call for a State Municipal Lobbying Code
It may be a big holiday week and the end of the year, but there has still been some news on the government ethics front. The Boston Globe has called for the state to institute disclosure requirements for local lobbying. According to the editorial, the only rule now is to file a letter with the Boston city clerk when lobbying the Boston city council. One letter about whom is represented and what the nature of the business is. You can lobby the Boston mayor and any board or agency without notice, not to mention the other cities and counties in the state. That doesn't cut it, at least according to the Globe editorial board.

When it comes to local lobbying oversight, cities are falling like flies. At least in Canada.

According to an article yesterday on the Vancouver, BC Metro News website, the city council voted unanimously to look into establishing a lobbying registry and hiring an independent ombuds, apparently to run the registry and more. This follows the vote to establish a lobbying registry in Hamilton, and the establishment of lobbying registries in Toronto and Ottawa.

I wish the news were as good in the U.S. Here the best news is that the chapter of my book Local Government Ethics Programs on lobbying (along with a Model Lobbying Code) should be done and online by the end of January, if all goes well.

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