making local government more ethical
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."

A must-read for lobbying reformers! A series of fascinating amendments that were made to New York City's lobbying law last December will take effect this month. There are some reforms here that I've never seen anywhere else, and they raise some issues that need to be more widely discussed.

The amendments, made in Local Law 129 (attached; see below), are based on recommendations made by a special reform task force, the NYC Lobbying Commission, established by the mayor and council to examine the lobbying law, hold hearings on it (reading the transcripts is instructive), and report on ways in which it could be improved. It's worth noting that the task force had five members and six staff.

Sometimes even a wrongheaded ethics complaint can do good, by showing how wrongheaded a town's government ethics program is.

According to an editorial in The Day this week, the head of a local political party, Independence for Montville, filed an ethics complaint alleging that a former council member who owns a hot dog stand pushed to have the town's street vendor law changed so that street vendors could be 500 feet rather than a mile (5280 feet) from a competing business. Unless there were a law prohibiting former council members from lobbying for their own interests, there would be no ethics violation.

The problem was that, in Montville (a town of 20,000 best known for hosting the Mohegan Sun casino), it is the town council that handles ethics complaints. As the editors recognize, "One party is going to be in charge, which means the public and those filing complaints are likely to look skeptically at the council's ethical rulings, suspecting favoritism, even if perhaps it is not there." Even if a local legislative body is nonpartisan, or evenly split, there is still the problem of members judging their colleagues regarding issues that affect them all, so that by letting off one colleague, they are creating (or seen to be creating) a precedent to let themselves off in the future.