making local government more ethical
Because Massachusetts has one of the better state ethics programs with jurisdiction over local officials, there are very few local ethics programs, unlike the situation in Florida, California, or Texas, for example.

But there have been some recent ethics reform efforts at the local level. Most recently, according to an article last week in the Boston Globe, the new Boston mayor has appointed members to serve on a new Ethics Committee, which will have the authority to develop annual disclosure statements, establish an ethics training program, and "reassess our internal policies and procedures."

The four EC members include Boston's corporation counsel, a lawyer specializing in government law, a university chancellor, and a former executive director of the state EC.

In Somerville, a suburb of Boston, the mayor has taken an unusual approach in the ethics ordinance he proposed last week. It is a combination of an ex parte communications prohibition and the disclosure of communications. Its focus is solely on elected officials, that is, on the board of aldermen and the schools committee. Here is a description of the proposed rules:

Update: April 3, 2014 (see below)

Every so often, someone comes along and says, What's so bad about government officials' ethical misconduct? Isn't it worth having ethical misconduct if it means an effective government?

This time it's Hilary Krieger, a Washington Post editor, who recently made the argument in an op-ed piece in her own newspaper, which has been reproduced in others. Unusually, her argument focuses on local government, on the current D.C. mayor in fact (see my recent blog post about some of the allegations against him).

Krieger asks, "Is it really in voters’ best interests to disqualify candidates, no matter the good they’ve done, because of a corruption scandal or two?" Immediately, she says that most voters don't think so.

But is this the right question to ask? Is it a matter of disqualifying candidates or is it, instead, a matter of uncovering their misconduct and sanctioning them for it? The voting booth is not the only place, or even the best place, to deal with misconduct. As Krieger acknowledges, cases such as the mayor's "are often viewed [by the public] as politics as usual; plus, they can be too convoluted for the public to easily follow."

Another mayor has resigned after getting caught by an FBI sting. According to an article in yesterday's Charlotte Observer, Charlotte's mayor, Patrick Cannon, has been alleged to have accepted bribes from undercover agents in return for promises to help them. His alleged crimes occurred when he was a council member and in the five months since he became mayor.

Would it have helped if Charlotte had had a good, independent ethics program, with training, independent advice, and disclosure? Possibly. It certainly would have helped if Cannon and his fellow council members had considered it important to have a good, independent ethics program. If these issues were openly discussed and if gifts, not to mention bribes, were not only prohibited, but frowned on and enforced, it is more likely that Cannon would have resisted temptation.

Can anyone volunteer for a local political campaign without it being considered a contribution? Isn't it everyone's right to do so? Isn't this just about the most important thing a citizen can do, short of running for office herself?

According to the Toronto Metro News website last week, a "political strategist" and lobbyist who was accused of being paid to work on a mayoral campaign responded, “I’m not getting paid a red cent, asshole.” Is there nothing left to say on the issue, other than about civility? Or is it a problem for a political strategist to offer his services for free without declaring them as an in-kind contribution?

I just finished reading the classic political science book Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl (Yale University Press, 1961). It might have been the second time around, because I did take an Urban Politics course forty years ago. The book happens to focus on New Haven, the city in whose suburbs I live and whose public campaign financing program I used to administer.

Who governs? is a question that is too rarely asked by those involved in government ethics. It is assumed that the only individuals who should be under an ethics program's jurisdiction are those currently in government office or with a government job. Often excluded from jurisdiction are numerous individuals who may be very important to the management of the community, including former officials, candidates, consultants and hired professionals (including outside auditors), advisers, party officers, power brokers and fixers, bidders on contracts, grant and permit applicants, those who own and manage contractors that do government work, such as charter schools and waste management companies, and those who work for independent, semi-independent, and public-private offices, agencies, and authorities. All of these people should be included in a local government ethics program.

While researching my last blog post, I visited the webpage of Tallahassee mayor John Marks, and was thrown for a bit of a loop. The first two paragraphs of his bio look more like an advertisement for his law firm than the bio of a mayor: