making local government more ethical
An interestting debate about lobbying and advisory groups can be found on the Austin Bulldog website. Late last week, the Bulldog published an article about an ethics complaint filed by the president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) against an appointed member of the Land Development Code Advisory Group (CAG). The complaint alleges that the CAG member is an unregistered lobbyist for a real estate consulting company, and that the resolution establishing CAG says that lobbyists or employees of lobbyists, registered or not, may not be members. The CAG member insists she has never lobbied, nor has her consulting firm.

There are two important issues here:  the definition of lobbyist and the membership of advisory groups. I have dealt with the latter issue in three blog posts:  a Fort Worth situation, "Making Use of Expertise," and "Alternatives to Allowing Conflicted Individuals to Sit on Advisory Boards." So I won't go into this issue here, except to say that there is no reason in the world to limit the prohibition on membership to lobbyists without limiting it equally to anyone directly or indirectly seeking special benefits from the government. There has to be a balancing of expertise with conflict of interest, and conflicts of interest are not limited to lobbyists.

The District of Columbia's former chief administrative law judge settled with the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) this week (the settlement agreement is attached; see below). The misconduct she admitted to included her hiring of a business partner without going through the standard hiring procedures, and contracting with a company owned by the business partner's boyfriend (see my detailed discussion of the charges against her).

The reason this is not an update to the earlier blog post is the way in which the judge's attorney mischaracterized the charges after the settlement was reached. According to an article in the Washington Post, the attorney characterized the charges she admitted to in the settlement as “technical violations relating only to the appearance of conflict of interest, rather than an actual conflict. ... We are pleased that our client has again been vindicated as part of this process. ... Given that all of the serious charges relied upon by Mayor Gray to discharge Walker are being dismissed, . . . Walker intends to continue to pursue her appeal to overturn Mayor Gray’s imprudent disciplinary decision.”

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, Oakland's council approved an amendment to the city charter, to go before voters in November, that would increase the authority of the city's ethics commission and provide it with the funds it needs to do its job. Congratulations to the council for what is, in some ways, an excellent reform package.

This ethics reform process began with a June 2013 civil grand jury report, which called for giving the city's ethics commission more authority to enforce ethics laws, and more resources with which to do it. Then, in May 2014, a working group of individuals mostly from good government-oriented civic organizations filed a report that made numerous ethics reform recommendations (see my blog post on it). The council quickly got to work on a charter amendment that contains some of the working group's recommendations.

A New York Daily News article yesterday describes an interesting conflict situation. At least one lobbying firm has worn two hats in its relationship with the speaker of the New York City council. One hat was that of a campaign and appointments consultant, the other was that of a contract lobbyist for multiple clients. See a Crain's New York Insider blog post from January for more about such relationships with the speaker.

This is legal, as the speaker's spokesperson insists, but there is still a serious conflict situation that needs to be handled responsibly. As Susan Lerner, head of New York Common Cause, is quoted as saying, “The merger between campaign consultant and lobbyist by the same entity raises significant problems and concerns.” In other words, the problem lies in having one firm wearing multiple hats in its relationship with a high-level official.

What specific problems does wearing these two hats cause? One, consulting creates a special relationship that goes beyond the usual meals and meetings with lobbyists. A special relationship leads to special access and favoritism, or the appearance of these. Lobbying is all about relationships, and lobbyists are obligated to do anything they can to further their relationships, especially with someone as important as the head of a major city's council.

Is it appropriate for a mayor — especially a mayor in a city with strict gift rules and a public campaign financing program that has strict campaign contribution limits — to work with an organization that lobbies the state on behalf of his policies and sponsors ads and materials that support his views and, especially, celebrate his successes?

This is the situation in New York City, where Bill de Blasio, in his first year in office, is being celebrated by an entity called Campaign for One New York (CONY), which announced yesterday its expenditures and contributors (in keeping with de Blasio's support of transparency, it went well beyond the requirement of disclosing contributors of over $5,000).

An excellent editorial yesterday by Dan Barton, editor of the Kingston (NY) Times, raises a few important issues relating to local government ethics proceedings.

According to Barton, Kingston's new ethics board dismissed a complaint from a city alderman that the mayor had violated the ethics code by hiring as an attorney for the city's local development corporation a lawyer with whom the mayor practiced as "of counsel."