making local government more ethical
Why is it so hard for officials, personally or in drafting ethics codes, to let an ethics commission do its work, dismissing complaints that lack validity (i.e., that do not state an ethics violation by someone under the ethics program's jurisdiction or for which there is insufficient evidence)? Why, instead, do they create and take advantage of non-substantive considerations for dismissal of complaints in order to take revenge on complainants?

I ask this question after reading a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting article from yesterday that shows how the Louisville Metro Council president has, in his response to a series of ethics complaints filed against him, asked that the complaints be turned over to the district attorney for possible criminal prosecution of the complainant.

Sadly, this request is suggested by the ethics code itself, which of course is the product of the very council that the president presides over.

According to an article in the Washington Post, two weeks ago, a public campaign financing bill (attached; see below) was introduced, cosponsored by all council members of Montgomery County, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC with about one million inhabitants, home to Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, and Gaithersburg. The bill, which will have its first public hearing on March 4, would give the county only the third local public financing program in the East (the others are NYC and New Haven). When some have predicted the death of public financing, it's heartening that this local bill, as well as one in Congress, have been introduced this year.

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.