making local government more ethical
Maryland has a rule that local ethics ordinances must require the disclosure of all an elected official's real property, stocks, and bonds. According to an article in the Carroll County Times, the Mount Airy council keeps passing an ethics ordinance that requires the disclosure only of real property in Mount Airy and surrounding counties, but nowhere else. And the state ethics commission keeps rejecting the ordinances as insufficiently strict.

According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Friday, the state ethics board refused to give ethics advice to the Port of South Louisiana regarding whether the hiring of a parish (that is, city) council member would be appropriate, considering that the Port and council work closely together on projects, and the council votes on port-related issues. The reason for the ethics board's refusal, on the advice of counsel, was that the Port would not disclose the council member's name. The reason for the Port's refusal is that it had not yet made its hiring decision and, therefore, the information was confidential (personnel matters are usually confidential).

As I keep saying, conflicts are about "benefits" and "relationships" rather than about "interests," and this should be reflected in the language of ethics codes. The clash of these two kinds of language is the subject of a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision, Newberry Station Homeowners Assoc. et al v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County (April 18, 2013).

The matter also involves non-financial benefits and the distinction between an official sitting on a body as a government representative or as a private individual.

In early 2009, I started out a blog post, "Type 'ethics' into the search line at utah.gov, and all that comes up is Archery Ethics Course Online." That is no longer true. In fact, the state legislature not only has an ethics commission, it even passed a local ethics commission act. And in response to that act, some Utah municipalities have set up ethics commissions or hearing officers, and one group in Davis County is even at work on a creative approach to a regional ethics program, something I have advocated as a way to provide both independence and professionalism at a reasonable price.

Ethics commissions are often stuck with one or more ethics provisions that they are know are, in some ways, irresponsible. They can recommend amendments to the provisions, but the legislative body is free to ignore such recommendations.

If this happens, an EC is not always powerless. It can often promulgate a regulation that can interpret the language in a provision, or provide exemptions, so that the provision is more responsible. The Massachusetts EC, which has jurisdiction over local officials, has done just this with a draft exemption (attached; see below) to a provision that effectively makes it a violation to have a conflict of interest, including a pre-existing contract with the government.

Toward the end of a video of the November 4 meeting of the Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, the committee vice-chair says that the testimony he heard was very "troubling." I felt the same way about the meeting as a whole, but for completely different reasons. What occurred at this meeting is as troubling as anything I have seen in seven years of following local government ethics matters nationwide.

From about 20 minutes into the video, the meeting is supposed to be focused on the audit report on the Palm Beach County EC, which I wrote about yesterday. A member of the office drafting the report summarized the report, and then the executive director of the EC effectively summarized the EC's response to the report. The responsible thing for the committee to do was to discuss the report's conclusions and the EC's acceptance and questioning of the report's recommendations. No such discussion occurred.

Two more people spoke, both of them lawyers representing clients who had been respondents in proceedings before the Palm Beach County EC. No one was asked to respond to what they said, and very few questions were directed to the speakers.