making local government more ethical
Mixing Election Oversight and Professional Contracts
According to an Illinois Business Times article on April 5, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is chaired by an attorney whose law firm has received presumably no-bid contracts to lobby for city agencies, that is, contracts from the administration whose mayor and alders were running for re-election. In a close race, the chair could affect whether the mayor or his allies were elected or required to face a runoff.

Chicago has a system to independently name members of the election board. This meant that the chair was not appointed by the mayor or the council, but by the county circuit court. However, the board's rules do not prohibit its members entering into city contracts, even though the contracts create a special relationship with the mayor and council.

An example I often use for why government ethics laws are only minimum requirements is that these laws cannot include friendships or romantic relationships, because these are impossible to define with any precision. When a relationship is not included because it is undefinable, this does not mean that one should not treat this relationship like any other special relationship and withdraw from matters involving that individual. One should go beyond the minimum requirements of the law and withdraw. Or even consider whether it is appropriate to have such a relationship, any more than it would be to go into business with a restricted source. It may seem unromantic, but personal relationships do involve more than love and affection. And the last thing a local official wants is jokes about how he's "sleeping with" a contractor, developer, or lobbyist.

In North Carolina, there appear to have been some cases of legislative aides dating lobbyists. To deal with the problem, a laughably inadequate bipartisan bill was drafted, instead of using the situation as a teaching point for the idea that ethics laws (in this case, a basic conflict of interest provision's application to special personal relationships) are, unlike most other laws, only minimum requirements. Here's the draft bill (HB 252):
According to a front-page article in today's New York Times, industries that unsuccessfully oppose local government regulations are going (effectively appealing) to state governments to get those regulations "pre-empted." The regulations involve everything from fracking, plastic bags, and e-cigarettes to minimum wages, apartment rentals, and municipal broadband systems. The industries involved include oil and gas, chemicals, restaurants, landlords, and cable television.

For those cities and counties that have lobbying oversight programs, this means that when a matter has been decided locally by law or referendum, lobbying on the matter continues, but without any registration or disclosure, at least locally. If there is state lobbying disclosure, as well as obligations and prohibitions, the requirements may be less inclusive, strict, and timely than the city or county's. This may mean that there is less or even no disclosure, or only disclosure after the matter has been decided. The lobbying will have gone off the local radar, even when it is opposed to the will of the local government or its citizens.

It is important for local government candidates who have serious conflicts of interest to let the community (not just voters in their district) know how they will deal with the conflicts if they are elected. To do this, they usually need to discuss possible situations with an ethics adviser, because it is too difficult to work out a plan on their own. But this rarely happens. Usually, when someone asks the right question, the candidate says she will deal with the issue when it arises, following all the relevant laws.

It is great to see the Chicago Sun-Times asking some good questions and trying to get a conflicted candidate to give more than a promise to follow the law and legal advice. The candidate has some complex conflict situations. An aldermanic candidate in Chicago, Patrick Daley Thompson is a land use attorney, a lobbyist registered with the city, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District  (MWRD) commission, a nephew of the most recent mayor, Richard M. Daley (in office twelve years, and whose law firm is, among other things, bond counsel for the MWRD), and a cousin of a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, which appears to have issued the bonds.

It's here at last:  the final chapter of my free e-book Local Government Ethics Programs. It is on lobbying oversight.

This is a topic that has received very little attention. The result is that the great majority of local governments have no lobbying oversight, and the programs that exist vary greatly and, for the most part, require disclosure of too few lobbying activities in a manner that is not as accessible as it should be, nor as timely. There is almost no online information about lobbying training, advice, or enforcement.

Call for a State Municipal Lobbying Code
It may be a big holiday week and the end of the year, but there has still been some news on the government ethics front. The Boston Globe has called for the state to institute disclosure requirements for local lobbying. According to the editorial, the only rule now is to file a letter with the Boston city clerk when lobbying the Boston city council. One letter about whom is represented and what the nature of the business is. You can lobby the Boston mayor and any board or agency without notice, not to mention the other cities and counties in the state. That doesn't cut it, at least according to the Globe editorial board.