making local government more ethical
When city and county contractors and their lobbyists don't follow the rules, it's difficult to catch them, because few cities have an oversight office that investigates on its own initiative. Without such a program, communities depend on federal and state criminal enforcers who focus on bribery and kickbacks.

It is the FBI and a federal grand jury that did the job in Dallas County which, unlike the city of Dallas, has no ethics program, just an aspirational code. In fact, it has two aspirational codes, only one of which is linked to on the county website; the one linked to is the National Association of Counties Code of Ethics (attached; see below); there is also a short ethics code in the county Code of Ordinances (Sec. 94-51). But there is no local ethics program.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, a federal grand jury has returned a 109-page indictment charging a long-time Dallas County commissioner (Price), his chief of staff, a corporate lobbyist, (Nealy) and a corporate consultant (Campbell) with a conspiracy that involved nearly $1 million going to the commissioner (in the form of money, land, and cars (one of the four cars, a New 2005 BMW 645Ci, cost $100,000)), while the commissioner supported the bids of the lobbyist's clients and provided them with confidential information that gave them a "strategic advantage" over other bidders.

It's questionable whether a contractor, developer, grantee, or other individual or entity that seeks special benefits from a local government should be permitted to make sizeable campaign contributions to candidates for positions in the local government. But if they are not permitted to make such contributions directly, they should not be permitted to make them indirectly, either.

According to an article today on the KPBS website, development companies and other real estate interests found a way to support the incumbent San Diego county supervisor's campaign without declaring, in the speech that was purchased with their money, that they were providing the support. They did this by contributing $100,000 to the county deputy sheriffs association PAC, which in turn funded flyers for the supervisor candidate. The flyers told citizens that they were paid for by the county deputy sheriffs association, with no mention of the developers.

The mayor of Miami-Dade County has announced the formation of a Procurement Review Task Force to, according to his May 6 memo (attached; see below), "improve and simplify our procurement process."

The principal goals of the task force are:
To ensure that all procurements continue to be conducted with the maximum level of transparency, fairness and integrity."

To "make procurement more efficient, easier to navigate for vendors," in other words, to significantly reduce "non-value added requirements. This also includes a full review of any changes needed to promote and implement Public-Private Partnerships and innovations from the private sector."
Balancing these two goals is one of the most difficult aspects of procurement. It is very hard to simplify the procurement process and reduce its requirements, while preserving transparency, fairness, and integrity.

Another day, another grand jury report recommending government ethics reform. This report (attached; see below) comes from Orange County, NY, a county northwest of New York City, whose biggest town is Newburgh and whose most famous towns include the very different Tuxedo and Kiryas Joel.

The report criminally exonerates the county legislator who is its subject, because he did a couple things right:  he sought ethics advice from the ethics board, and he disclosed his employment with a county contractor to the county legislature's attorney (who responsibly told the legislator to seek an ethics opinion from the ethics board) and other county officials, and in his annual disclosure statement. But the report does recognize that there are still problems which should be considered by the ethics board, including (1) the legislator's vote on a project when he was in talks about employment with a contractor working on the project, and (2) the legislator's signing in to a meeting, which was chaired by a county official, as a county legislator, and then soliciting business for the contractor he had been employed by.

Despite its exoneration of the legislator, the grand jury — like many grand juries and unlike most local legislatures — took a look at the county's ethics program as a whole, making recommendations that went beyond those that would prevent the particular misconduct it was considering. However, it still made piecemeal recommendations, without any research into best practices (there is mention only of some state and nearby practices, and government ethics programs in New York state are not, on the whole, very good). Here is a list of its most important recommendations:

According to an article this week in the Sun-Sentinel, the Broward County, FL commission is discussing changes to the countywide ethics program, focusing on gifts and ethics advice.

Gift Bans
Conversations about the problems with gift bans are like Hollywood monsters:  they never die (see my 2010 blog post on the last such discussion I covered). In Broward County, the monster's roar hasn't changed.

The principal complaint is that a gift ban is just a way to trap elected officials into ethics violations. But, according to the article, no official has been charged with accepting a de minimis gift. The entrapment argument is a phony one.

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."

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