making local government more ethical
ALEC has gone local. No, not Alec Baldwin. ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that for the last few years has been drafting conservative legislation for state legislatures. According to an article in today's New York Times, this year ALEC started a new program called the American City County Exchange, which will draft conservative legislation for local legislatures.

Its first area of focus is right-to-work laws, the term for laws that prohibit labor unions from requiring their members to pay fees. The members still get the value of the union's work, but don't have to pay for it. This leaves the union with less resources to get politically involved. The goal of these laws is changing the balance of political competition.

The issue I want to raise involves local lobbying. When organizations such as ALEC try to get county officials to pass their laws, they do not have to disclose their lobbying, because very few counties have lobbying oversight programs. Thus, according to the article, when an ALEC ordinance came before the Warren County, Kentucky Fiscal Court (effectively, the county commission) last week, it came completely out of the blue, with no disclosure of lobbying or even of the topic of the ordinance.

When it comes to local lobbying oversight, cities are falling like flies. At least in Canada.

According to an article yesterday on the Vancouver, BC Metro News website, the city council voted unanimously to look into establishing a lobbying registry and hiring an independent ombuds, apparently to run the registry and more. This follows the vote to establish a lobbying registry in Hamilton, and the establishment of lobbying registries in Toronto and Ottawa.

I wish the news were as good in the U.S. Here the best news is that the chapter of my book Local Government Ethics Programs on lobbying (along with a Model Lobbying Code) should be done and online by the end of January, if all goes well.

According to an article yesterday on the Baltimore Brew website, a year ago Baltimore's mayor officiated at a wedding between two individuals who lobby the city government. In Las Vegas, no less.

Mayors, judges and, sometimes, other local government officials often officiate at weddings. Some ethics codes have a special exception from the gift ban that allows for this, but most make no mention of it.

The question is, should there be limits on officiating at weddings, or should government officials be allowed to use their public office to officiate at anyone's wedding, including those of lobbyists, contractors, developer, and grantees ("restricted sources")?

The principal value of lobbying, according to both lobbyists and government officials, is the expert information lobbyists provide. The view is often stated that, with the resources they have, government officials could not effectively do their job without the expertise they obtain from lobbyists.

The public, however, has no idea how this information is used. When it turns out that a lobbyist effectively wrote a bill, argument, letter, or speech that an official presents as his own work, no matter how useful this service may be, it appears that the official is representing the lobbyist's client rather than the public.

An article in today's New York Times quotes former Oregon attorney general David B. Frohnmayer on the topic, specifically with respect to a letter written by a energy industry lobbyist for a state attorney general to send to the federal Environmental Protection Agency:
“When you use a public office, pretty shamelessly, to vouch for a private party with substantial financial interest without the disclosure of the true authorship, that is a dangerous practice. The puppeteer behind the stage is pulling strings, and [the public] can’t see. I don’t like that. And when it is exposed, it makes [the public] feel used.”
According to an article in the November 29 issue of The Economist, when China banned gifts to government officials, sales of the principal producer of baijiu, a sort of Chinese vodka, fell 78% in just a year.

The only sales that would likely go down if gifts were banned across the board in the United States would be restaurant and golf club sales. That is because petty bribery is less a problem here than the ongoing reciprocal relationships between lobbyists and the government officials their clients are seeking to influence.

Former lobbyist, now jailbird, Kevin A. Ring shared some valuable words of wisdom in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post this week.

He says that the gift limit should be zero, because any other limit will be abused (what he doesn't say is that any exception will also be abused). He also notes that "Numerous psychologists and behavioral economists have confirmed the principle of reciprocity: People are hard-wired to repay even small favors or gifts. For officeholders, this benign, evolutionary instinct could come back to hurt them."