making local government more ethical
It's been a few years since I wrote about the problems with the partisan, or "bipartisan," administration of local elections. One thing that arisen from this year's election is a strong feeling that it is high time that New York City's Board of Elections be reformed. Hopefully, this process will get a great deal of publicity, and become a guide for other communities.

The principal problem in New York City, as in many other cities and counties throughout the country, is the state's election laws. According to an article this week in the New York Times, the state constitution "sets the parameters for how all elections in the state are managed, requiring that Republicans and Democrats be equally represented at all levels of election administration."

In other words, bipartisanship is the rule. Bipartisanship means control of the election process by the two major parties, which can't manage to agree on very much other than keeping the powerless members of minor parties (not to mention those who have chosen not to register as a member of either party) not only out of power, but also out of election administration. The two major parties have ensured their control of elections not only in laws, but also in constitutions, which are much harder to change. If this were to happen in a poor country, we would call it a power grab and insist that election boards be as nonpartisan as possible, including people from all parties and as many independents as possible.

Independent agencies, especially those with lots of money to spend and contracts to enter into, require not just ethics policies, but a comprehensive, independent ethics program. This rarely acknowledged fact has been made clear once again by an external audit of an agency that proved completely unable to self-regulate its officials' and employees' conflicts of interest. The agency is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which not only manages the area's two principal airports, but also manages a toll road to one of the airports and a huge project to extend subway service to that airport. The external audit, published on November 1, was done by the federal Transportation Department's inspector general.

A front-page article in yesterday's New York Times provides an excellent portrait of a government official who, although doing much good work, made it all about himself and those with whom he has special relationships. Although his misconduct caught up with him only when it took the form of the alleged sexual harassment of his staff, the patterns of misconduct portrayed in the article center on a basic government ethics problem:  the confusion between person and office. What makes this official tough to deal with is that his only local office was a party position. Someone like him is outside the jurisdiction of the great majority of local ethics programs.

Update: Counsel for the Housing Authority informed me that it was the Authority board, through him, that originally notified HUD of problems, and that another counsel was involved in some of the relevant transactions. Therefore, I have made some changes to the original post.

An editorial in today's New Haven Register sets forth allegations about the West Haven (CT) Housing Authority that add up to a typical fiefdom (see the section on fiefdoms in my book Local Government Ethics Programs). This case is especially interesting to me, since I live in North Haven, not far away.

There appears to have been no effective local oversight of the housing authority staff, either by the housing authority commissioners, by the appointing authority (the mayor), by the council, or by anyone else in the government or the community.

Ethics Code Amendment Without a Scandal
Sometimes conflict situations, when they are handled responsibly, lead to changes in an ethics code. This happened recently in Prince William County, Virginia, according to an article on the website.

A county supervisor wanted to give $100,000 of his discretionary funds to his wife’s charity project. Then he thought the matter through, and decided not to. But he didn't stop there. He presented an amendment to the county's conflict of interest policy that would prevent county supervisors from voting on any matter where the supervisor or an immediate family member had a direct conflict of interest, and on any matter where funding was directed to an organization on whose board the supervisor or family member sat.

A Complex School Board Conflict Situation
Should someone closely associated with an organization that has been awarded a sizeable preschool contract be prevented from sitting on a school board when the contract was not with the school board? That is one of the questions raised by an article this week in the Connecticut Post. The Bridgeport, CT school board member, a minister, was originally appointed by the state, but is running to retain his seat on a new, elected board. His opponents are questioning the propriety of his sitting on the board.