making local government more ethical
Is local government ethics enforcement appropriate for local legislators? This question is currently being asked in Sarasota County, FL and Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS. A key to whether this is the right question is who is asking the question. In both cases, it is local legislators who have been respondents in ethics enforcement proceedings, and some of their legislative colleagues.

I'm currently reading a classic political science book about urban politics, Who Governs? by Robert Dahl. Who governs? is a question that is not asked often enough in local government ethics. It is not enough for an ethics program to have jurisdiction over officials and employees. It needs to have jurisdiction over those who actually govern the community, no matter what their position. I raised this issue in a 2011 blog post about power brokers who hold no office and in a 2012 blog post about a party leader and state senator.

I was reminded of this issue by a column this week by Michael Powell in the New York Times. The matter involved the creation of a dump for petroleum-contaminated soil in land near the Rahway River in New Jersey. The company seeking permits to open the dump was represented at a county board hearing by a state senator whom Powell refers to as the "county political boss." The senator "more or less dominates [the county board] through careful oiling of well-financed political action committees." He also wears the hat of chair of the state senate's environment committee. But he has no position in the county government, and there is no law that says that a state official cannot represent someone before a county board.

City Attorney Ethics Enforcement in San Francisco
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle this week says that the city attorney filed a lawsuit against a former member of the board of supervisors (the city's legislative body) who acted as a lobbyist, but failed to register (in arguing that he was acting as an attorney, the supervisor pointed to an unfortunate exception in the lobbying law, for professionals when they are "performing a duty or service that can be performed only by an attorney, an architect or a professional engineer." There is now talk of amending this exception.).

The article says that the lobbyist registration provision "is routinely ignored and enforcement is rare. The Ethics Commission ... has dismissed 12 of the 15 complaints for unregistered lobbying since the law took effect, according to commission records. The other three resulted in settlements with combined fines of $10,750." The top sanction is $5,000 per incident; the city attorney alleged that there were 70 incidents.

In this case, the former supervisor has offered to pay a $75,000 fine to settle the case, but without admitting that he had done anything wrong (the settlement is attached; see below).

What should an ethics program do when an agency or department takes ethics advice and enforcement into its own hands? This issue has arisen in Hawaii County, according to two articles in West Hawaii Today, one from two years ago, the other from last week.

The county's finance department oversees property assessment. According to the 2012 article, "Employees may hold professional licenses such as in the area of real estate sales or property appraisals, but they are banned from using the license for personal gain anywhere in the county, unless approved in advance by the finance director and in accordance with the county ethics code."

The finance director suspended an employee for two weeks without pay for selling real estate, "after he told his supervisor he wanted to disqualify himself from assessing a parcel because he had had conversations with the owner in the past in his role of private-sector real estate agent." The employee insists he should be allowed to practice as a realtor as long as he properly withdraws from participation in matters where he is conflicted. The employee filed an ethics complaint against the finance director, arguing that the director violated the ethics code by failing to get an opinion from the ethics board with respect to the employee's alleged ethics violation.

This is the third of four blog posts on Florida Senate Bill 606 (attached; see below), one of the worst ethics reform bills I have ever read.

This post considers just one sentence of the bill: "A political subdivision is prohibited from imposing additional or more stringent standards of conduct and disclosure requirements upon the officers and employees of another political subdivision." The first question that comes to mind is, What subdivisions are we talking about? The answer is, counties and cities, more specifically, counties and cities in countywide ethics programs, experiments in independence and cost-saving that are Florida's greatest gifts to government ethics. This innocuous-seeming sentence would place shackles on these countywide ethics programs.

Who should be allowed to file an ethics complaint? Certainly any citizen of the jurisdiction. But what about multiple citizens of the jurisdiction? Should an ethics commission exclude a complaint from them?

This is what happened recently in Brookfield, CT, according to an article in the News-Times. A petition signed by a few hundred people in town was sent to the city's ethics board, but the ethics board rejected it, insisting that complaints have to be filed on an official form signed by a particular individual. This makes no sense. A complaint signed by multiple individuals is a good way to protect individuals from retaliation and, therefore, make it more likely that ethics complaints will be filed. And a complaint signed by multiple individuals should be given more, rather than less respect. It shows that the community is very concerned about the matter.