making local government more ethical
On Monday, Anthony Man of the Sun-Sentinel wrote an excellent analysis of the lobbying elements of Florida Senate bill 846 (a copy of the bill is attached; see below), which was recently passed by the senate unanimously.

The law would prohibit local officials from registering as a lobbyist of state legislators or agencies, except on behalf of their political subdivision. This is a good prohibition, because it is not clear to the state official whether the local official is lobbying on behalf of the city or on behalf of a client. It is a classic situation of wearing two hats. And the local official may be harming the municipality by seeking a favor for a client rather than for the municipality, because such favors are limited.

Here's a good-news story from Delray Beach, FL. But first the bad news. According to an op-ed by Rhonda Swan this week in the Sun-Sentinel, in 2012 the Palm Beach County inspector general "warned Delray that extending its contract with Waste Management until 2021 without seeking bids would violate state and city rules that require competitive bidding." The then city manager disagreed, and the city commission approved the contract extension.

"The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became — though even to use words like 'corrupt' or 'sinister' made serious people uncomfortable, so Katsuyama avoided them. Maybe his biggest concern, when he spoke to city residents, was that he be seen as just another nut with a conspiracy theory."

This seems like a classic description of the problem citizens have when they understand institutional corruption in a city government and try to get others to understand it. But I changed one term: "city residents" was actually "investors," and this is a quote from Michael Lewis's new book, Flash Boys, which was excerpted in this week's New York Times Magazine.

Reading this excerpt, about the way high-frequency traders took "advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s ... simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not," kept making me think of institutional corruption in local governments. The biggest difference is that it is the local officials themselves who draft loophole-ridden, rules and regulations (or fail to fill the loophones, or simply follow unwritten rules). Even when the rules were originally "well-meaning," they often become the basis for unfair advantages given to certain contractors, developers, grantees, and regulated businesses that, in turn, provide benefits to the officials, their families, their businesses, and their business associates.

Here's another story involving the lack of transparency. This time, the lack of transparency involves a company getting government grants.

According to an article from a week ago on floridaytoday.com, Brevard County, FL's commissioners approved a $205,000 grant for Project Magellan, a business development at the Melbourne (FL) airport that is "expected to bring 1,800 jobs paying an average of $100,000 apiece." The grantee's name was not provided.

According to an article yesterday on floridatoday.com, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission approved a $20.8 million grant for the same mysterious project after only three minutes of discussion, which consisted primarily of the minority leader saying that he was “going to trust the professional staff” of the Department of Economic Opportunity “that they’ll do the right thing.”

Consent agendas, also known as consent calendars, are an excellent way to get around the disclosure of conflicts (and, as Dallas showed us in 2011, to amend ethics provisions without a discussion (see my blog post on this)).

A consent agenda is a way to deal, in a single motion and a single vote, with routine, non-controversial items, in order to save often a great deal of time. Board members are allowed to request the movement of a specific item on a consent agenda to the regular meeting agenda, but this is rarely done. Often, few board members have a clear idea what is on a consent agenda. Voting for it becomes a habit, like voting to approve the minutes. However, sometimes matters are placed there, with or without the knowledge of board members, in order to be passed with no attention or to prevent the need for particular members to disclose conflicts they would have to disclose were there to be a discussion and vote on the particular matter.

While researching my last blog post, I visited the webpage of Tallahassee mayor John Marks, and was thrown for a bit of a loop. The first two paragraphs of his bio look more like an advertisement for his law firm than the bio of a mayor: