making local government more ethical
Ferguson, MO — where Michael Brown was recently killed by a police officer, and the police department's first reaction was to protect the officer and keep the facts secret — is an unusual case of a local government where a scandal is likely to actually increase rather than decrease citizen participation in government.

There is an interesting column today in Vox about why a primarily black city has a nearly all-white government. The article quotes Prof. Jeff Smith, formerly a St. Louis-area state senator, explaining the situation (which he says is relatively common to suburbs where minorities have moved in recent decades) as follows:
Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.

The North County Labor Club, whose overwhelmingly white constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements, operates a potent voter-turnout operation that backs white candidates over black upstarts. The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund re-election campaigns. Construction, waste and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side and, usually, the work force as well.
Garbage is the principal regular point of contact between individuals and their local government. If people are happy with their garbage pickup, they are likely to be happy with their local government. For this reason, smart high-level local government officials make sure that garbage pickup is done well.

In Chicago, the members of the board of aldermen wanted to be given credit for garbage pickup. They also wanted to use it as a way to provide their supporters with jobs. To do this meant ward control over garbage collection and a garbage collection map based on wards, not on what was most efficient. This meant more trucks and more employees, more votes for incumbents, and more costs for taxpayers.

According to an article last week in the Washington Post, the Fairfax County (VA) Attorney fired one of his office's assistant attorneys because she was elected to the council of a city within the county, even though he and his deputy who deals with personnel matters had given her permission to run for office. In a letter sent after the election, the county attorney explained the apparent contradiction as follows:
“I apologize if you were misled by the apparent ambiguity. I have never disputed that [Virginia law] bars localities from prohibiting its employees from participating in political activities…There is no right, however, under the First Amendment or otherwise that guarantees that an attorney can hold public office.”
In other words, you can run for office, but you can't win. However, it's not a First Amendment issue, it's a statutory issue. Section 15.2-1512.2 of the Code of Virginia expressly allows local government employees to participate in “political activities” as long as they are out of uniform, on their own time, and are not trying to use their position to solicit donations or support. Included in the definition of “political activities” is “becoming a political candidate.” Any reasonable interpretation of this would include winning an election. The only question is whether the office won may be within the county, at least with respect to an assistant county attorney.

It's the end of an era. Last week, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, a federal magistrate declared that Chicago was released from the 1972 Shakman consent decree, which was supposed to end patronage (for a long time, however, patronage went underground; see my 2006 blog post on this). From now on, there will be no more federal oversight over city hiring.

An investigative piece in yesterday's New York Times raises an interesting issue regarding complicity in ethical misconduct:  is there an obligation not to be complicit with misconduct at a different governmental level when, arguably, that misconduct financially benefits one's own government?

According to the article, when Bayonne, NJ was in deep financial trouble in 2010, with the state talking about bailing it out the way it had bailed out Camden in 2002, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey purchased a piece of land from the city (1) that the port authority had no use for and (2) at a price substantially higher than it was worth (in fact, the year the purchase was made, the port authority wrote down the value of the property). This apparently fraudulent purchase meant that the city would be in solid financial shape, at least for the short run.

The apparent purpose of this purchase was not only to help the city of Bayonne, but to solve a dilemma for New Jersey's governor, who "was confronting a huge deficit in New Jersey’s budget, while trying to keep a campaign promise to not raise taxes." The purchase shifted the problem from the state to the port authority.

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.