making local government more ethical
I just finished reading the classic political science book Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl (Yale University Press, 1961). It might have been the second time around, because I did take an Urban Politics course forty years ago. The book happens to focus on New Haven, the city in whose suburbs I live and whose public campaign financing program I used to administer.

Who governs? is a question that is too rarely asked by those involved in government ethics. It is assumed that the only individuals who should be under an ethics program's jurisdiction are those currently in government office or with a government job. Often excluded from jurisdiction are numerous individuals who may be very important to the management of the community, including former officials, candidates, consultants and hired professionals (including outside auditors), advisers, party officers, power brokers and fixers, bidders on contracts, grant and permit applicants, those who own and manage contractors that do government work, such as charter schools and waste management companies, and those who work for independent, semi-independent, and public-private offices, agencies, and authorities. All of these people should be included in a local government ethics program.

The Boss of the Ethics Director's Bosses
According to an article this week in the Free Times, an FOI lawsuit was filed against South Carolina's ethics commission, because its director had said that a letter informing the governor of an ethics violation had not been sent and had been destroyed, when in fact it was sent and did exist.

Not only does the governor appoint all EC members (making her the boss of those for whom the ethics director works) but, according to the article, the director consulted with the governor's private attorney before telling his staff attorney that her opinion (apparently the one in the letter) was uninformed. This relationship with the governor, plus the EC's lack of transparency, undermine the public's trust in the ethics program.

Update October 7, 2013 (see below)

On Independence Day weekend, I like to focus on the independence of local government ethics programs. The public naturally trusts any ethics program that has not been selected by the officials under its jurisdiction. An EC that is not dependent on the appointment and budgetary powers of a mayor or local legislative body can function, and be seen to function, fairly and without bias.

Savannah is a city of 140,000 people, certainly large enough to have a decent, independent government ethics program. However, it lacks one. Its ethics board does no training, provides no advice, oversees no disclosures, has jurisdiction only over elected officials, and has no teeth and no webpage. The ethics board's members are selected by the mayor and board of aldermen.

According to an article in yesterday's Savannah Morning News, two of the three ethics board members have tendered their resignations due to the fact that they made illegal contributions to or endorsements of city candidates. They said they were unaware of restrictions on their political activities.

There's a lot of food for thought in the February 21 decision of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in the case Lodge No. 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Philadelphia.

The suit was brought in order to end the prohibition on police officers making campaign contributions to local candidates directly or through a party or PAC, including the police union's own PAC. The suit was brought against the city and its ethics board, which had promulgated regulations based on the 1951 ordinance (see especially regulations 8.8 and 8.14).

The suit was based on First Amendment free speech and free association arguments, as well as a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection argument.

The last Congress is known for doing very little, but a couple of weeks ago it actually passed a bill that will have a serious effect on local government ethics: the Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012 According to a press release on the bill, it "removes the federal prohibition on most state and local government employees who want to run for partisan political office. Under current law, state and local government employees may not run for partisan office if their job is connected to federal funding, a prohibition that prevents well-qualified candidates from serving their local communities. S. 2170 will strike this prohibition unless the employee’s salary is fully funded by federal dollars. The Hatch Act will continue to restrict state and local government employees from engaging in coercive conduct, or otherwise using their government positions to advance partisan political ends."

Here's an interesting political activity situation out of La Crosse County, Wisconsin. According to an article in the La Crosse Tribune last week, the county administrator was involved in supporting a referendum to give the city of La Crosse its own administrator. A city or county manager is not supposed to be involved in local politics, according to the ethics code of their own professional association, ICMA. But this issue was not in the county government, although it was in the county. And the administrator considers his support "promotion of my profession" rather than political activity.