making local government more ethical
It's Not the Dead Bodies, It's the Living Ones
"He knows where the bodies are buried at Metro." According to a local mayor as quoted in an article yesterday in the Surrey North Delta Leader, this is an important qualification for someone going from Metro Vancouver (BC) treasurer to lobbyist for the company that runs the local landfill. It just so happens that the mayor's town is working with the landfill company to extend the landfill into his town. Also last year, the same company hired a provincial legislator to be a lobbyist.

The problem with the revolving door between city/province and a company doing business with and regulated by city and province is not only knowing where bodies are buried, but also having close personal, professional, and political relationships with live individuals in the governments, and knowing and having special access to confidential information that is useful to the company. After a cooling-off period, the information one knows is less likely to give the company an advantage, and many contacts will not be buried, but will be gone from government and not in a position to give the company preferential treatment due to having a former colleague on staff.

In a New York Times column today, Michael Powell has unearthed an ugly-looking government ethics situation in New Jersey involving apparent misuse of government ethics authority to win a vote.

The fact situation is fairly typical. What is not typical is the way it has been handled. A gas company is seeking permission to put a pipeline through the Jersey Pine Barrens, a huge nature reserve that is overseen by the Pinelands Commission, an independent agency whose members are selected by the governor, by various local officials, and by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The members include environmental activists as well as real estate professionals.

The current governor's administration has arranged a deal by which the gas company will pay $8 million to the commission, and the commission's staff support the deal. But the four preceding governors have written a letter opposing the pipeline, and it looks like the commission vote, scheduled for tomorrow, will be close.

One of the commission members is, among other things, the president of the board of the nonprofit Eastern Environmental Law Center, which called for an additional public meeting on the pipeline. According to the article, on December 6 a deputy attorney general called the commission member to tell him that he had a conflict of interest based on the center's call for an additional meeting. The commission member said that he did not believe this constituted a conflict. The deputy AG said that the commission member could appeal to the commission's ethics officer. Every state agency in NJ has an ethics officer, as part of the state ethics program, which also has a state EC.

According to a recent Reader Supported News article, ethics allegations have been made in Montpelier regarding two high-level officials. Both allegations are worthy of a closer look.

According to the article, the mayor of Montpelier, the state capital, is a lawyer with a firm that represents two major national banks. The city's director of planning and development is the executive director of Global Community Initiatives (GCI), a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable development. Among GCI's goals is the establishment of a Public Bank of Vermont. Apparently, the idea of a public bank is opposed by commercial banks.

According to an article in the Capital Gazette, a former Anne Arundel County (MD) county executive, who was convicted early this year of a misdemeanor for misconduct in office, wants to run for office again, despite the judge ordering, as part of the criminal penalty, that he not be permitted to run for office for five years.

The former official's arguments in an appeal to the conviction, solely regarding the ban on his running for office, are (1) that the language in the criminal provision was overly vague, preventing him from knowing that he was committing a crime, and (2) that the court lacked the authority to ban him from running for public office.

A Baltimore Sun commentary this week by iSolon.org's president, J. H. Snider, notes that many elected officials, including the county executive's predecessor, have their security detail do personal and political work for them, and are never prosecuted. He also explains that, due to a debilitating back operation, the county executive was forced to depend on those around him in unusual ways, such as changing his urinary catheter bag.

But the problems go well beyond these, and are much more general in nature.

Sometimes, conflict of interest matters come disguised as election law matters. Most of the time, due to secrecy, laziness, or an inability to draw lines between the dots, no one recognizes the conflict of interest matter. But sometimes, someone gives the game away, and it becomes clear how inextricable the two areas can be.

According to an article in today's New York Times, the game in Nassau County, NY (pop. 1.3 million) was putting up a third-party candidate for county executive in order to take votes away from a major party candidate. One conflict matter was the arrest of a man who had not paid a $250 fine. Why was this a conflict matter? Because a tiny percentage of those who do not pay fines are ever arrested. This arrest was handled by three police officers, and occurred on a bus. It was clearly a case of preferential mistreatment.

A "resign to run" law is an unusual sort of conflicts of interest law. It requires that before an elected official runs for a different office, she resign from her current office. Philadelphia's "resign to run" law is one of the most onerous ones. According to the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia good government organization, other cities that have such laws, such as Phoenix and Dallas, also have term limits for council members. Philadelphia does not.

Philadelphia's "resign to run" law was part of charter revision in 1951, which also included the creation of a civil service commission. That is, it was part of an attempt to bring patronage under control.

Things have changed. The Committee of Seventy says, "It’s hard to gauge whether elected officials who are not forced to resign would be more or less likely to influence and intimidate employees as they would if they were running for reelection (as they can now). When the Philadelphia Board of Ethics discussed 'Resign to Run' at a recent meeting, its Executive Director said it didn’t seem that it would."

The Committee of Seventy supported removing the "resign to run" law in 2007. The same ballot question has successfully gone out of committee and will soon go before the city council.