making local government more ethical
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.

It's been a year since I last wrote about placement agents, so it's time for an update, based on an article put up yesterday on the Forbes Magazine site, designated for the May 23 issue.

Placement agents are intermediaries between pension boards and companies that invest pension boards' funds. They are paid by the investment companies to win pension boards over. They are especially useful to investment companies that are new, lack sales staff, or do not want to deal directly with pension boards due to disclosure and conflict rules.

Without giving it any thought, it would be hard to think of a better fit than a city politician running the local chamber of commerce. After all, the goals of a chamber of commerce and of a city government are pretty much the same:  security, good government, good services, low taxes.

But when you think about it more, you realize that a chamber of commerce is not just a cheerleader for the city, but also a powerful organization that lobbies city politicians on a variety of issues, representing the interests of local businesses. A local chamber of commerce is also an organization in which certain companies from certain industries predominate, especially those that contract with local government and those that seek permits and approvals from local government.