making local government more ethical
Conflicts of interest are not always positive, any more than relationships are always positive. And conflicts are based on relationships.

We tend to think of an official using his position to help a family member or business associate. But sometimes officials use their position to harm someone with whom they have a negative relationship, anyone from a former in-law (the bum who dumped my sister) or current in-law (that woman who's driving my brother crazy) to a former business partner or a major business competitor.

These negative situations do not crop up in the news very often. That is why it is worth noting a situation that occurred with respect to Colorado's Public School Capital Construction Assistance Fund. According to an article today in the Daily Caller, an auditors report recommended better conflicts of interest rules for the Fund's board.

As an example of a problematic conflict situation, it gave the handling an application for a grant from a school district that had previously rejected bids from two Assistance Fund Board members’ construction companies. Minutes show that both members spoke negatively about the school district's project. The auditors were surprised they were allowed to participate in the matter.

Six years ago, I wrote a blog post on apology (including full disclosure) in the medical context. Today's New York Times' "Invitation to a Dialogue" letter from a hospital executive takes this issue a step further to a consideration of the value of individual punishment vs. institutional change. The lesson he provides is one that is important to government ethics, as well.

Who Should Oversee Nepotism Rules?
According to an article in the Stamford (CT) Advocate last week, Stamford's Board of Representatives voted to amend an anti-nepotism bill to instead require the city's human resources director to draft a nepotism policy. The sponsor of the amendment was quoted as saying, "A one-size-fits-all approach is not really amenable in situations that can be so different based on individual circumstances and different traditions. In matters of extreme human sensitivity like this I think we should be governed by policies that can be flexible, nimble and readily amended to meet unforeseen circumstances or unintended consequences."

Such flexibility is usually provided by a waiver process, under the ethics commission's authority (Stamford has an active EC). It is hard to imagine a human resources director as having the authority to stand up to the uniformed departments, which are usually where most nepotism occurs.

Yesterday's blog post discussed the law giving California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) authority over §1090 of the state code, which deals with contract-related conflicts of interest and applies to both local and state officials. Knowing little about this section, which stands outside the state's ethics code (known as the Political Reform Act), I did a little research into it. It's an interesting provision that has received some interesting interpretations. Here is §1090:
Members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members. Nor shall state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees be purchasers at any sale or vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.
No Contract Where There's a Conflict
The language that stands out is "by any body or board of which they are members." This refers to the making of contracts. But one wonders how this language is applied. According to the relevant section of an ethics training course on the Attorney General's website, "If a member of a multi-member body with contracting power has a financial interest in a contract, section 1090 generally provides that the contract cannot be made even if the member has disqualified himself or herself from actually participating in the contract."

According to an article in the Washington Post this week, the federal Office of Government Ethics has reminded agencies to tell their furloughed employees that "they remain employees of the Federal Government during furlough periods . . . It is particularly important for employees to understand that ethics provisions regarding outside activities, including provisions regarding outside employment, will continue to apply to them while they are in a furlough status."

Would this also be true of furloughed local government employees, or even employees who take an unpaid leave of absence?

Here's an interesting local government ethics scenario from Ottawa that deals with the often neglected oversight relationship. According to an article this week in the Ottawa Citizen, six people died in a recent bus-train accident at the Woodroffe Avenue train crossing in Ottawa. This brought attention to the safety of the train crossing's design.

It turns out that the consultant who designed the train crossing is married to the city's deputy city manager in charge of transportation, that is, the official in charge of the train crossing's safety. But when the consultant designed the crossing in 2004, her husband was not a city employee. He was vice-president in charge of the Ottawa office of the consulting firm that administered a safety assessment of the train crossing and designed a wider version of the crossing and the adjacent stretch of the Transitway.