making local government more ethical
Here is a concrete example of the problem of allowing local government attorneys to provide ethics advice that protects local officials, a problem that Florida state senator Jeff Clemens and the Florida League of Cities want to harden into state law in SB 606 (see my recent blog post for a discussion of the problem).

According to an article in yesterday's Sun-Sentinel, the state ethics commission found probable cause that a county sheriff had failed to report gifts from a contractor and campaign supporter, but recommended that no action be taken because the sheriff had relied on advise of counsel. That counsel was general counsel for the property appraiser's office, who happens to be the son of a county commissioner and whom the sheriff happened to have since made his office's general counsel. This government attorney told the sheriff to value the gift of a Bahamas cruise on the contractor's yacht (10 passengers, including the sheriff's and contractor's families) by how much it would cost to take a commercial cruise to the Bahamas. The actual cost was nearly four times the cost of a commercial cruise, and the experience was very different. On this basis, the sheriff paid the contractor a quarter of the actual cost, making the rest a gift.

After ripping apart one Florida ethics "reform" bill, it's nice to be able to say that Florida's legislative leaders are planning to do some good things this year. According to an Integrity Florida press release today, the senate and house leaders have committed themselves to do the following:

One of the biggest problems in government ethics is determining whether ethics reforms "work." A well written article in the Advocate looked at Louisiana's ethics enforcement since the reforms instituted by Gov. Jindal became applicable in 2009. Louisiana's ethics program has jurisdiction over local officials.

Update: January 22, 2014 (see below)

Yesterday, the Broward Bulldog, in Broward County, FL (home of Ft. Lauderdale), published an excellent investigative report on the lack of lobbying laws in Florida's 992 independent special districts, which together spend many billions of dollars of taxpayer money every year. These special districts do everything from water management, mosquito control, and community development to running public hospitals, ports, and airports. They include both local and regional districts. One Florida county has 83 independent special districts.

The larger districts enter into contracts and other transactions for many millions of dollars a year, and deal with lobbyists frequently. And yet the state does not require them to have lobbying laws. The state doesn't require this of any local governments, although many of them do have such laws. But these laws do not apply to independent special districts, only to dependent ones, such as community redevelopment agencies. Of the 38 independent districts with annual budgets in excess of $50 million, only 3 reported having some form of lobbyist regulation; another prohibits lobbying in its bylaws. The other 34, without lobbying regulation, have cumulative annual spending of $7.1 billion. Of the 7 districts that levy the most property taxes each year, only 1 provides for lobbying registration. It does so by voluntarily following the county's lobbying law and asking lobbyists to register there.

Here is the story of a good settlement reached in an Ohio ethics proceeding involving a council member from a very small city. According to a recent article in the Canton Rep, the council member voted on an addendum to the lease of a golf course despite the fact that he lived on adjoining property. He admitted to having violated the state's conflict of interest provision, but the state ethics commission chose not to refer the matter to a prosecutor (ethics violations are crimes in Ohio) due to the following mitigating circumstances:
The role of the city or county attorney in an ethics program continues to be a major bone of contention, despite the fact that government ethics professionals generally take the position that the city or county attorney should not be involved in an ethics program.

The latest locale for this dispute is Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans with about 430,000 people. According to an article this week in the Times-Picayune, after the resignation of the parish's ethics officer, a council member has proposed to hand the job over to the parish attorney. To support his proposal, he asked the state ethics board, which has jurisdiction over local officials, whether this was allowed. The ethics board responded that, "There is nothing in the [state] Code of Ethics that prevents a board or commission from assigning additional duties to a public servant."

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