making local government more ethical
A recent post on Philadelphia's Parents United for Public Education blog raises an issue that pulls together FOI and confidential information issues. Entitled "Is 'right to know' the new 'pay to play'?", the post is about Parents United's attempt to make public a report that contains a list of Philadelphia schools recommended for closure and the criteria used for developing the list. The failure of this attempt would mean special access to confidential information for those who partially funded the preparation of the report.

The criteria and list were put together by a contractor, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and the project was partially paid for by the William Penn Foundation. In turn, for this project, the foundation solicited donations from, among others, real estate developers and those promoting charter expansion, that is, from individuals and entities that stood to benefit from information about school closings as well as from the closings of particular schools.

Parents United sought to get a copy of BCG's report, but were told by the school board that the report was protected from disclosure as an "internal predecisional document." Parents United won the case before the Pennsylvania Office of Public Records, on the grounds that the document had been disclosed to the William Penn Foundation and the foundation was not "internal." The school board has filed suit in court to overturn the Office of Public Records decision.

In my estimation, Seattle voters made a big mistake last week. They voted for two related changes to their government. One was a public campaign financing program for citywide council elections. The other was a change from citywide council elections to district council elections, which would leave only two citywide positions.

Public financing was rejected 51.6% vs. 48.4%. Council districts were accepted 65.6% vs. 34.4%. Both votes will lead to more institutional corruption in Seattle. By this, I mean the legal influence of those seeking benefits from the officials to whom they contribute and the facilitation of legal pay to play.

A front page article in today's New York Times involves allegations of self-censorship by Bloomberg News. But in addition, it tells a very important story about government ethics.

The article says that the Chinese government has retaliated against news organizations, including the Times, for writing about one subject:  the private wealth and interest of Chinese government officials. Violence against minority groups, the poisoning of exported food products, buying up large swathes of Africa, all sorts of horrible stories are allowed to be published by the foreign press without retaliation. But when it comes to what, in the U.S., high-level national officials would be required to be disclose to the public at large, this is where the Chinese government draws the line.

The next time someone says that government ethics is unimportant, tell them how China's leaders feel:  nothing is more important.
Ethics commissions are often stuck with one or more ethics provisions that they are know are, in some ways, irresponsible. They can recommend amendments to the provisions, but the legislative body is free to ignore such recommendations.

If this happens, an EC is not always powerless. It can often promulgate a regulation that can interpret the language in a provision, or provide exemptions, so that the provision is more responsible. The Massachusetts EC, which has jurisdiction over local officials, has done just this with a draft exemption (attached; see below) to a provision that effectively makes it a violation to have a conflict of interest, including a pre-existing contract with the government.

Toward the end of a video of the November 4 meeting of the Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, the committee vice-chair says that the testimony he heard was very "troubling." I felt the same way about the meeting as a whole, but for completely different reasons. What occurred at this meeting is as troubling as anything I have seen in seven years of following local government ethics matters nationwide.

From about 20 minutes into the video, the meeting is supposed to be focused on the audit report on the Palm Beach County EC, which I wrote about yesterday. A member of the office drafting the report summarized the report, and then the executive director of the EC effectively summarized the EC's response to the report. The responsible thing for the committee to do was to discuss the report's conclusions and the EC's acceptance and questioning of the report's recommendations. No such discussion occurred.

Two more people spoke, both of them lawyers representing clients who had been respondents in proceedings before the Palm Beach County EC. No one was asked to respond to what they said, and very few questions were directed to the speakers.

Tomorrow morning, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, regarding prayer at meetings of local legislative bodies. In addition to the important constitutional questions regarding separation of church and state, there are government ethics questions involved. This post will consider those ethics questions.