making local government more ethical
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.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning the difference between a conflict of interest and a gift. It appears that most people consider them two completely different things. In fact, they represent two kinds of conflicts, pre-existing conflicts and conflicts that are created by an event. The confusion between the two characterizes a situation that led to an ethics complaint in Los Angeles.

According to an article on the KPCC public radio site, from January to May this year, a son of interim general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety had a paid internship (while in law school) with the lead law firm representing the developer of a huge project known as the Millenium Towers. The complaint against the general manager characterized the issue as a conflict of interest, and two published reports of the matter do the same (but a comment does suggest it was a gift). However, the general manager was involved in the matter several months before his son was hired by the law firm. There was no pre-existing conflict or relationship, only the hiring of a family member after the law firm and general manager were already involved in the matter.