making local government more ethical
The Stamford (CT) Advocate's Angela Carella wrote an excellent column on Saturday about a post-employment (also known as revolving door) situation in Stamford. Entitled "In Ethical Questions, Appearances Matter," the column looks at the many problems with a school board member taking a job with a company that manages the school board's construction projects. He resigned his position the day before he accepted the job.

When officials take jobs with businesses their agency oversees, they are seen as using their government service as a stepping stone to help themselves as well as the firms that do business with the government, a win-win deal for everyone but the public. The revolving door puts a question mark at the end of everything the official did in office: what was he giving away in order to get a personal reward? When he acted, advocated, and voted, was he thinking of his future or what’s best for the public?

One of Carella's most astute observations is that the situation was not cured by the school board member's decision not to attend a meeting where the school board voted on a 42% increase in the contractor's fee (partly to create the position the school board member has filled). One reason is that, despite withdrawing from the vote, he did not withdraw from participation in the matter. "[H]e had the opportunity in the months before — particularly as head of the Operations Committee that oversees [the contractor] — to influence board members' views of [the company's] performance as school facilities manager."

When city and county contractors and their lobbyists don't follow the rules, it's difficult to catch them, because few cities have an oversight office that investigates on its own initiative. Without such a program, communities depend on federal and state criminal enforcers who focus on bribery and kickbacks.

It is the FBI and a federal grand jury that did the job in Dallas County which, unlike the city of Dallas, has no ethics program, just an aspirational code. In fact, it has two aspirational codes, only one of which is linked to on the county website; the one linked to is the National Association of Counties Code of Ethics (attached; see below); there is also a short ethics code in the county Code of Ordinances (Sec. 94-51). But there is no local ethics program.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, a federal grand jury has returned a 109-page indictment charging a long-time Dallas County commissioner (Price), his chief of staff, a corporate lobbyist, (Nealy) and a corporate consultant (Campbell) with a conspiracy that involved nearly $1 million going to the commissioner (in the form of money, land, and cars (one of the four cars, a New 2005 BMW 645Ci, cost $100,000)), while the commissioner supported the bids of the lobbyist's clients and provided them with confidential information that gave them a "strategic advantage" over other bidders.

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).

A week ago, I wrote about a poorly written provision in Denver's ethics code, and the danger it poses not only to Denver, but also elsewhere, since local governments in Colorado and in other states are apt to look at the ethics code of such a large, well-respected city (although now that its highness has two meanings, who knows).

On a happier note, this post will look at an excellent decision by Denver's ethics board (attached; see below) relating to this very provision, as well as other, related provisions, and the situation that led to the editorial on which I based my post. The board dismissed the complaint because, even if all its facts were true, it determined that there would be no ethics violation.

What is special is that the board did not simply dismiss the complaint, as most do, either without another word or with a short look at the stated facts and the law. The board effectively acknowledged the limitations of the gift provision:  "[T]he Board’s decision should not be read to constitute an endorsement of the practice of accepting gifts by elected officials under circumstances akin to those at issue here."

Are those who draft local government ethics codes unusually eccentric? Unusually clever? Or just lazy? Whichever it is, they don't seem to consider best practices, or even the practices of better ethics programs. Across the U.S.A., ethics code drafters seem to pull many of their provisions out of a hat. And as with Rocky the flying squirrel, sometimes they pull out a rabbit, sometimes a rhino, and sometimes Bullwinkle the moose.

The inspiration for this mini-rant is a Denver Post editorial this week about the need to fix the city's gift provision, which contains the following rule:
No more than a total of four meals, tickets, or free or reduced price admissions may be accepted from the same donor in any calendar year, regardless of the value
Another day, another grand jury report recommending government ethics reform. This report (attached; see below) comes from Orange County, NY, a county northwest of New York City, whose biggest town is Newburgh and whose most famous towns include the very different Tuxedo and Kiryas Joel.

The report criminally exonerates the county legislator who is its subject, because he did a couple things right:  he sought ethics advice from the ethics board, and he disclosed his employment with a county contractor to the county legislature's attorney (who responsibly told the legislator to seek an ethics opinion from the ethics board) and other county officials, and in his annual disclosure statement. But the report does recognize that there are still problems which should be considered by the ethics board, including (1) the legislator's vote on a project when he was in talks about employment with a contractor working on the project, and (2) the legislator's signing in to a meeting, which was chaired by a county official, as a county legislator, and then soliciting business for the contractor he had been employed by.

Despite its exoneration of the legislator, the grand jury — like many grand juries and unlike most local legislatures — took a look at the county's ethics program as a whole, making recommendations that went beyond those that would prevent the particular misconduct it was considering. However, it still made piecemeal recommendations, without any research into best practices (there is mention only of some state and nearby practices, and government ethics programs in New York state are not, on the whole, very good). Here is a list of its most important recommendations:

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