making local government more ethical
According to an article in today's New York Daily News, an investigation by the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has found that the son of the NY State Senate majority leader was a consultant for a company that won a county stormwater treatment contract in the majority leader's district, despite not being the low bidder and, according to a New York Times article, despite creating a need for state legislative approval due to the company filling a duel role in the project (it is unlikely now that approval will be provided).

According to the Times, the U. S. Attorney is trying to determine whether the senator tried to influence the bidding process and whether the senator's son was hired by the contractor as "part of a scheme in which the senator, in exchange, would take official action that would benefit" the contractor or a real estate developer with ties to it.

Mixing Election Oversight and Professional Contracts
According to an Illinois Business Times article on April 5, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is chaired by an attorney whose law firm has received presumably no-bid contracts to lobby for city agencies, that is, contracts from the administration whose mayor and alders were running for re-election. In a close race, the chair could affect whether the mayor or his allies were elected or required to face a runoff.

Chicago has a system to independently name members of the election board. This meant that the chair was not appointed by the mayor or the council, but by the county circuit court. However, the board's rules do not prohibit its members entering into city contracts, even though the contracts create a special relationship with the mayor and council.

Partial withdrawal from participation is not a sufficient cure for an apparent conflict of interest. When there is any involvement, it can be seen as providing preferential treatment, as being unfair. Once again this is made clear, in the most controversial local government problem of the year:  a white police officer's killing of a black man in Ferguson, MO.

According to an article in Newsweek, the elected St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, is seen as especially sympathetic to the police. "His father was a St. Louis policeman killed in the line of duty by a black man when McCulloch was 12. His brother, nephew and cousin all served with the St. Louis police. His mother worked as a clerk for the force for 20 years. McCulloch would have joined the force too, but he lost a leg in high school due to cancer. 'I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,' he once said." He also spoke out (almost alone) in favor of a continuing role for the local police in the demonstrations that followed the killing.

According to an article yesterday in the Rockdale Citizen, Rockdale County, GA's county commission is having a debate on how to select its three-member ethics board and its alternates. Unfortunately, it's a debate that is being waged with no reference to best practices and almost no outside professional input. It's as if a debate about a construction project were to include little input from or reference to the work of engineers or planners. I point this out not because it is atypical, but because it is all too typical.

According to an editorial in the Orange County (CA) Register this week, Orange County citizens will soon vote on an initiative that would make their county the second one to turn its campaign finance program over to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). But the initiative's wording calls the FPPC "the ethics commission," which causes confusion, because many in the county, including a recent grand jury (see my blog post on this) as well as past grand juries, have called for a local ethics commission to be formed.

The editorial points out that the initiative's language is misleading, because ethics commissions — and there are many good ones in California — do far more than enforce campaign finance laws.

An article today in the New York Times describes a situation that sheds light on pay to play. It involves the Westchester County (NY) county executive, who is getting special scrutiny because he is running for governor and has, throughout his career, as well as in this election, been openly critical of pay to play. He is being accused of hypocrisy, but it may just be that he does not really understand what pay to play is, why it is problematic, or how to prevent it.

According to critics, donors who have given the Westchester county executive $900,000 in campaign contributions over the last four years have received $709 million worth of county work. The executive's campaign "scoffed at any causality, noting that contracts must be competitively bid and approved by legislators."

randomness