making local government more ethical
A week ago, I wrote about a poorly written provision in Denver's ethics code, and the danger it poses not only to Denver, but also elsewhere, since local governments in Colorado and in other states are apt to look at the ethics code of such a large, well-respected city (although now that its highness has two meanings, who knows).

On a happier note, this post will look at an excellent decision by Denver's ethics board (attached; see below) relating to this very provision, as well as other, related provisions, and the situation that led to the editorial on which I based my post. The board dismissed the complaint because, even if all its facts were true, it determined that there would be no ethics violation.

What is special is that the board did not simply dismiss the complaint, as most do, either without another word or with a short look at the stated facts and the law. The board effectively acknowledged the limitations of the gift provision:  "[T]he Board’s decision should not be read to constitute an endorsement of the practice of accepting gifts by elected officials under circumstances akin to those at issue here."

Alysia Santo wrote an excellent Insider Politics column in the Albany Times-Union last week on the need for a post-employment provision in the city that is the capital of New York state. But the columnist went further than this, looking at some aspects of the city's institutionalized corruption (without actually giving it a name).

She focused on one recent instance involving Albany's commissioner of development and planning, who has accepted a job with a firm that is "responsible for nearly all commercial construction in the city." The company "has sought city approval on several large projects" and been granted incentives, including tax breaks, in recent years. Albany has no post-employment provision that even requires a cooling-off period before an official can take a job with a company he did business with as an official. In fact, it has no ethics code at all. One was discussed in 2009 (see my blog post on it), but it was not passed.

San Francisco's board of supervisors will soon vote on a number of amendments to its lobbying code (attached; see below). According to an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, the amendments are based on recommendations by local good government groups, which have pointed out that loopholes in the current law allow many lobbyists not to register. The amendments are sponsored by the board's president, David Chiu.

Independent Agencies
It is a good thing that the amendments extend the definition of "lobbyist" to those who lobby independent agencies, offices, and bodies. The officials who work for or sit on these bodies are some of the most lobbied officials, but they generally do not like to be included in government ethic programs and, therefore, are often excluded from them. Here are some of the agencies, offices, and bodies that are currently not covered, but would be:
Are those who draft local government ethics codes unusually eccentric? Unusually clever? Or just lazy? Whichever it is, they don't seem to consider best practices, or even the practices of better ethics programs. Across the U.S.A., ethics code drafters seem to pull many of their provisions out of a hat. And as with Rocky the flying squirrel, sometimes they pull out a rabbit, sometimes a rhino, and sometimes Bullwinkle the moose.

The inspiration for this mini-rant is a Denver Post editorial this week about the need to fix the city's gift provision, which contains the following rule:
No more than a total of four meals, tickets, or free or reduced price admissions may be accepted from the same donor in any calendar year, regardless of the value
There are three interesting issues in this one minor matter, involving a Louisiana sheriff's purchase of a house at a foreclosure sale handled by the sheriff's office.

The Application of Ethics Laws to Foreclosure Purchases
The first issue involves the transaction itself, the particular law in Louisiana, and how more common conflict laws may be interpreted in such a situation.

Louisiana has an unusual law that deals with this sort of transaction:
§1113. Prohibited contractual arrangements
A.(1) No public servant ... or member of such a public servant's immediate family, or legal entity in which he has a controlling interest shall bid on or enter into any contract, subcontract, or other transaction that is under the supervision or jurisdiction of the agency of such public servant.
One of the especially good aspects of this language is that it is not limited to situations where an official was personally involved in a transaction. The rule acknowledges that, to the public, it doesn't matter if the sheriff's deputy had handled the auction. What matters is that it was the sheriff's office. Similarly, a deputy should not be allowed to purchase property at an auction run by the sheriff or by another deputy.

A local lobbying law is only as good as its enforcement, especially when local government leaders provide no leadership.

According to a column by Scott Cooper Williams in the Green Bay (WI) Press Gazette yesterday, Green Bay passed a lobbying registration law three years ago and, since that time, only seven lobbyists, representing two total clients, registered.

This city hall reporter says that he saw lobbying going on all the time. "That is why I expected a rush of activity when city leaders three years ago took steps to make lobbying more transparent. ... But weeks turned into months, and not a single lobbyist came forward to sign up."