making local government more ethical
When a city or county attorney's office does not represent the ethics commission, should that office play any role in an ethics proceeding? I don't believe it should.

But that is what happened recently in Cobb County, GA, according to an article last week in the Marietta Daily Journal. After an ethics complaint was filed against four of the five county commissioners, the county attorney quickly filed a response "asking the ethics board to dismiss the complaint, which she called unfounded and based on non-legal claims."

Is local government ethics enforcement appropriate for local legislators? This question is currently being asked in Sarasota County, FL and Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS. A key to whether this is the right question is who is asking the question. In both cases, it is local legislators who have been respondents in ethics enforcement proceedings, and some of their legislative colleagues.

In most cities and counties throughout the United States, the city or county attorney is in charge of the government ethics program. I have written a great deal about why this is not a best practice, but city and county attorneys still keep providing further reasons. Here's one from Tioga County, NY.

According to an article in the Star-Gazette yesterday, Tioga County has a law that prohibits citizens from making copies of officials' annual financial disclosure forms. They can't even photograph them, type the data into a computer, or dictate the data into a phone.

Here's another story involving the lack of transparency. This time, the lack of transparency involves a company getting government grants.

According to an article from a week ago on floridaytoday.com, Brevard County, FL's commissioners approved a $205,000 grant for Project Magellan, a business development at the Melbourne (FL) airport that is "expected to bring 1,800 jobs paying an average of $100,000 apiece." The grantee's name was not provided.

According to an article yesterday on floridatoday.com, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission approved a $20.8 million grant for the same mysterious project after only three minutes of discussion, which consisted primarily of the minority leader saying that he was “going to trust the professional staff” of the Department of Economic Opportunity “that they’ll do the right thing.”

The story of state legislative interference with local government ethics programs in Florida continues with a newly amended bill in the state senate (SB 1474 is attached; see below), sponsored by senator Joe Abruzzo, whose antagonism to the Palm Beach County ethics program has been the subject of three City Ethics blog posts in the past year (audit of the Palm Beach County program, legislative committee call for suspension of the program, and possible involvement in Florida League of Cities' ethics reform proposals).

Since the state senate cannot pass rules that apply only to one local government ethics program, the bill would apply to all of them, including the Jacksonville program administered by City Ethics' president, Carla Miller.

The stated goal of the amended bill is to bring more due process to local government ethics programs. The stated problem is that the same people who find probable cause also determine whether an ethics violation has occurred. This appears at first blush to be a serious problem. Once an individual or body has determined probable cause that a respondent official has violated an ethics provision, he or it may be considered to have decided against the respondent and, therefore, be biased against him. Such an individual or body may argue before another individual or body that a violation has occurred, but should not make any further determination in the matter.

What a Probable Cause Finding Actually Means
However, as I told Sen. Abruzzo, this shows a misunderstanding of what it means to find probable cause. This finding, which is often misunderstood, does only one thing:  it allows the matter to proceed. It is less a determination or finding than a decision not to dismiss, because at least one allegation in a complaint appears to have enough validity to be considered. It is a decision to proceed from a preliminary investigation to a full investigation and, possibly, a hearing. In most jurisdictions, it is also a decision to make a matter public. But it is not a decision that a violation has occurred. It is only a decision that there is enough evidence not to dismiss the complaint without a hearing. It is the sort of preliminary decision that judges make on a daily basis, and yet are allowed to make final decisions on the merits, as well.

The independent selection of EC members is a great thing for making a government ethics program appear independent of those under its jurisdiction and for ensuring that an ethics commission remains fully stocked with members. But how this selection process is actually accomplished matters, too.

There is good and bad in the Palm Beach County (FL) ethics commission selection process, as can be seen from recent events, as chronicled in a Sun-Sentinel article.