making local government more ethical
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.”

When a lawyer decides to represent a private client, she does not give up her right to vote or petition governments on her own behalf. But what about when a lawyer decides to represent a public client, especially as a lobbyist? Does such a lawyer give up her right to vote on issues relating to the city government (assuming she sits on another government's board) or petition a government on behalf of her own beliefs?

These questions arise from a case in Cincinnati, where a city lobbyist also sat on the county elections board. According to an article this week on, the city government strongly opposes moving an early-voting site out of the city's downtown, but the lobbyist supports the move. The mayor asked the lobbyist to withdraw by abstaining from the elections board vote. Instead, the lobbyist withdrew from his lobbying contract, which had paid him nearly $9,000 a month.

In a New York Times column today, Michael Powell has unearthed an ugly-looking government ethics situation in New Jersey involving apparent misuse of government ethics authority to win a vote.

The fact situation is fairly typical. What is not typical is the way it has been handled. A gas company is seeking permission to put a pipeline through the Jersey Pine Barrens, a huge nature reserve that is overseen by the Pinelands Commission, an independent agency whose members are selected by the governor, by various local officials, and by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The members include environmental activists as well as real estate professionals.

The current governor's administration has arranged a deal by which the gas company will pay $8 million to the commission, and the commission's staff support the deal. But the four preceding governors have written a letter opposing the pipeline, and it looks like the commission vote, scheduled for tomorrow, will be close.

One of the commission members is, among other things, the president of the board of the nonprofit Eastern Environmental Law Center, which called for an additional public meeting on the pipeline. According to the article, on December 6 a deputy attorney general called the commission member to tell him that he had a conflict of interest based on the center's call for an additional meeting. The commission member said that he did not believe this constituted a conflict. The deputy AG said that the commission member could appeal to the commission's ethics officer. Every state agency in NJ has an ethics officer, as part of the state ethics program, which also has a state EC.

According to a recent Reader Supported News article, ethics allegations have been made in Montpelier regarding two high-level officials. Both allegations are worthy of a closer look.

According to the article, the mayor of Montpelier, the state capital, is a lawyer with a firm that represents two major national banks. The city's director of planning and development is the executive director of Global Community Initiatives (GCI), a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable development. Among GCI's goals is the establishment of a Public Bank of Vermont. Apparently, the idea of a public bank is opposed by commercial banks.