making local government more ethical
Many people believe that conflicts of interest are limited to situations where money is involved. When these people write ethics laws, as they often do, the law effectively says that where money isn't involved, any conduct is acceptable.

An investigative piece in yesterday's New York Times raises an interesting issue regarding complicity in ethical misconduct:  is there an obligation not to be complicit with misconduct at a different governmental level when, arguably, that misconduct financially benefits one's own government?

According to the article, when Bayonne, NJ was in deep financial trouble in 2010, with the state talking about bailing it out the way it had bailed out Camden in 2002, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey purchased a piece of land from the city (1) that the port authority had no use for and (2) at a price substantially higher than it was worth (in fact, the year the purchase was made, the port authority wrote down the value of the property). This apparently fraudulent purchase meant that the city would be in solid financial shape, at least for the short run.

The apparent purpose of this purchase was not only to help the city of Bayonne, but to solve a dilemma for New Jersey's governor, who "was confronting a huge deficit in New Jersey’s budget, while trying to keep a campaign promise to not raise taxes." The purchase shifted the problem from the state to the port authority.

Good news and bad news about lobbying from New York City's new mayor. The good news, according to a recent article on the Capital New York website, is that the mayor has said that his administration will disclose "substantive" meetings that members of his administration conduct with lobbyists. This is, he says, a practice he followed when he was the city's public advocate (a sort of ombuds), before he was elected mayor.

Disclosure of such meetings by officials is an excellent check on disclosure by lobbyists, and provides an official-by-official view of the lobbying that is done. This could be required by ordinance or regulation, but when it is not, it is good to see high-level officials setting up a procedure in the meantime.

However, voluntary disclosure is not a replacement for making disclosure part of the lobbying or conflicts of interest program, because a voluntary procedure usually lacks detailed definitions and requirements, training, neutral advice, and independent enforcement. It is a valuable gesture, and can provide useful information, but it works best for a mayor – as opposed to an independent office like an ombuds — as a step toward the goal of institutionalizing the procedure.

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:
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