making local government more ethical
A conflict situation in my state of Connecticut is instructive regarding a basic concept of government ethics, as well as a basic concept of legislative immunity.

Legislators insist that they require immunity because their motives in making decisions cannot be questioned outside their body. Government ethics, on the other hand, does not consider motive, only conduct and relationships. This is one of the principal reasons why I argue that legislative immunity does not protect legislators from government ethics enforcement.

But when the talk is not about legislative immunity, it turns out to be perfectly okay to discuss a legislator's motives, as well as others' motives.

Background
According to a Jon Lender column in the Hartford Courant this weekend, (Disclosure: the Courant occasionally hires me to write op-ed columns on government ethics issues), the state's house minority leader made a strenuous argument against a bill requiring increased financial disclosures by for-profit nursing homes. His law firm lobbies for the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which opposed this bill.

As we know, the devil's in the details. In government ethics codes, this means the language. In the case I will look at here, the devil's in the verbs.

According to an article on the WTSP-TV website last week, a Florida state senator who lobbies for a sports team seeking taxpayer subsidies relating to payments on its sports arena voted on a stadium/arena subsidy bill. After the TV station asked the senator about his vote and lack of disclosure of a conflict, the senator "received a written opinion from the Senate's special counsel, which indicated he did not need to file a disclosure because, while his client could benefit from the legislation, 'private gain or loss to your principal would be speculative.'"

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."

What should be done when an official withdraws from participation in a matter and gives a reason for withdrawal that appears to be false? Why would an official provide a false reason for withdrawal? There are at least two possible reasons:  (1) the real conflict situation would look worse than the given conflict situation, or (2) the real reason is that the official doesn't want to anger the people on either side of the matter, that is, the official really wants to abstain, but doesn't want to be seen as a coward who has failed to represent his constituents.

A VotersOpinion blog post from yesterday got me thinking about this. It alleges that when a North Miami Beach council member withdrew from a variance matter involving a house that was to be sold for about $4 million, he said the reason was that he might be bidding on the house (not a conflict that government ethics codes commonly recognize, but certainly a valid reason to withdraw). However, his financial disclosure statement says that he is making $80,000 as a teacher and council member, not enough to buy such a house without a lot of wealth.

What should an ethics program do when an agency or department takes ethics advice and enforcement into its own hands? This issue has arisen in Hawaii County, according to two articles in West Hawaii Today, one from two years ago, the other from last week.

The county's finance department oversees property assessment. According to the 2012 article, "Employees may hold professional licenses such as in the area of real estate sales or property appraisals, but they are banned from using the license for personal gain anywhere in the county, unless approved in advance by the finance director and in accordance with the county ethics code."

The finance director suspended an employee for two weeks without pay for selling real estate, "after he told his supervisor he wanted to disqualify himself from assessing a parcel because he had had conversations with the owner in the past in his role of private-sector real estate agent." The employee insists he should be allowed to practice as a realtor as long as he properly withdraws from participation in matters where he is conflicted. The employee filed an ethics complaint against the finance director, arguing that the director violated the ethics code by failing to get an opinion from the ethics board with respect to the employee's alleged ethics violation.

Sometimes Withdrawal and Formal Processes Are Not Enough
It never looks good when a high-level elected official gets a job with the government while in office or soon after leaving office. It looks like he got the job because of his influence and relationships with those who made the decision.

According to an article in the Observer-Reporter, the North Strabane Township (PA) solicitor was shocked that anyone questioned the chair of the board of supervisors being hired as a department head. “He went through the same process as the other candidates. He was completely shielded and excluded like the other candidates. Once he announced he was interested in the position, we excluded him from anything to do with the parks position.”