making local government more ethical
When it comes to conflicts of interest, is a local government attorney primarily an attorney or a local government official? I would answer this question, "Definitely an official." But recently the New Jersey Supreme Court answered this question, "Definitely an attorney." In fact, had the attorney been an administrator, the opinion suggests, the court's decision would have been different.

The opinion focuses on the standard for determining whether the decision of a local government body should be voided, as tainted by a conflict of interest. The two standards considered are actual prejudice and appearance of impropriety. Different levels of court applied different standards in the case of Kane Properties, LLC v. City of Hoboken. The NJ Supreme Court's decision on the standard was made on June 26. Thanks to Patricia Salkin for bringing this decision to my attention by blogging about it on her Law of the Land blog.

Several interesting issues arise from a recent ethics case in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans with about 430,000 people. According to an article in the Advocate yesterday, an employee of a large parish contractor sent the following e-mail to a council member's aide, who forwarded it to the council member:
“I would like to schedule a meeting with Councilman Spears to meet with Jim Martin, Vice President of GEC to discuss business development in District 3. Would a campaign contribution make the meet happen any quicker?"
Some people incorrectly believe that a conflict of interest requires an official not to vote in such a way as to benefit himself. That is, if the official might benefit from a vote, it's okay for him to vote against it, because that shows that the official is not seeking to benefit himself.

What is odd is to see this position taken by an ethics commission. This is what happened in a June 14 advisory opinion from the Mississippi Ethics Commission. The situation was that six state legislators worked for Medicaid providers. The question was whether they could vote against expansion of Medicaid, pursuant to the new federal program.

Does a council member who is a realtor have a conflict with respect to any council matter that affects real estate, including a matter that affects property values ? That appears to be the view of NJ Superior Court Judge Grasso in a decision this week, according to an article in Thursday's Asbury Park Press.

Applicant Disclosure Is Good for Officials
If Ontario or Mississauga required broad applicant disclosure, Mississauga's mayor would not be in court this week arguing that she didn't know that her son had invested in a huge hotel and convention center deal. According to an article yesterday on the 680 News Radio site, she has been alleged to have voted with a conflict, and could be forced to resign as mayor.

The mayor has said in her defense that she didn't read a crucial document containing her son's name, because she didn't have her reading glasses. She has to plead ignorance, something that, of course, she cannot prove. Had her son been required to disclose that his mother was the mayor, she would have been alerted and she could have withdrawn. Had she not withdrawn, there would be no need for a trial.

Appearances are very important in government ethics. A situation that has arisen with respect to a proposed state audit of the Palm Beach County ethics commission has created serious appearance problems.