making local government more ethical

How you present an ethics provision can make all the difference. Take a pay-to-play ordinance proposed in Fort Wayne, which would limit the amount of contributions and gifts that can be given to city officials by an individual or entity if it wants to have a no-bid contract with the city.

It's fascinating how different issues are important to local government officials in difference places at different times. I couldn't say that officials will always dig in their heels and fight this ethics provision, or that another ethics provision never raises an eyebrow.

Take Broward County, FL, for example. After numerous arrests and convictions of local officials, the county commission passed a new ethics ordinace, and the county's citizens voted to have this ordinance apply to the county's municipalities (see my November 2010 blog post).

Many of the municipalities had problems with the ordinance, so the county commission asked the Broward League of Cities for its recommended changes in adapting the county code to municipalities. The county ordinance and the League's revised version are attached below, so that you can open them side by side, if you'd like. You might also want to look at the Sun-Sentinel's chart comparing the two.

An ethics controversy involving the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has led to the resignation of four of the seven members of the APS ethics commission, a failure to replace them, and a threat to the schools' accreditation status.

As discussed in an earlier blog post, eighteen months ago the Dallas council, under the prodding of the mayor at the time, passed some ethics reforms. According to a Dallas News editorial last month, only six months later the council backed off reporting requirements for gifts they receive, creating a number of exceptions.

One of the new provisions prohibited campaign contributions to a council member while a zoning case was being decided by the council and for 60 days afterwards. But then in April, as part of the consent agenda, without discussion, developers' employees and representatives were excluded from this prohibition (only property owners, their officers and directors are now covered), and the 60-day prohibition was shortened to 30 days, apparently so that contributions could come pouring in faster, appearances be damned.

Two months ago, a book was published called The Jersey Sting, by two Star-Ledger reporters, Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin. It provides the history of an enormous federal sting operation which led to the arrest of dozens of government officials, most of them from local governments, on July 23, 2009 (see my blog post of that date). It's a real page-turner that shows how things work and how easy it can be for anyone with money to make deals with elected officials, at least in New Jersey.

The actual sting operation is not really a local government ethics story, but rather a tale of an ethics environment that is so poor, criminal conduct is just waiting for the money to start it going.

If nothing else, this book should make it very clear to local government officials all over the country how valuable a good, independent ethics program is. The books shows very clearly what can happen when there is nothing to prevent an ethics environment from getting this bad.

Last month, the Obama administration drafted an executive order that would require those seeking federal government contracts to disclose their political contributions, and those of their directors, officers, affiliates, and subsidiaries, made in the two years before they bid for a contract. This draft executive order has been the subject of a great and unusual controversy.

Some state and local governments already have laws that require the disclosure of, or even prohibit, political contributions from government contractors. Why do such laws exist? All one need do is look at the list of contributions to candidates, parties, and many PACs to see that those from government contractors, current and prospective, constitute a sizeable portion of the funds that are contributed.