making local government more ethical
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.

It's Not the Dead Bodies, It's the Living Ones
"He knows where the bodies are buried at Metro." According to a local mayor as quoted in an article yesterday in the Surrey North Delta Leader, this is an important qualification for someone going from Metro Vancouver (BC) treasurer to lobbyist for the company that runs the local landfill. It just so happens that the mayor's town is working with the landfill company to extend the landfill into his town. Also last year, the same company hired a provincial legislator to be a lobbyist.

The problem with the revolving door between city/province and a company doing business with and regulated by city and province is not only knowing where bodies are buried, but also having close personal, professional, and political relationships with live individuals in the governments, and knowing and having special access to confidential information that is useful to the company. After a cooling-off period, the information one knows is less likely to give the company an advantage, and many contacts will not be buried, but will be gone from government and not in a position to give the company preferential treatment due to having a former colleague on staff.

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."

A recent post on Philadelphia's Parents United for Public Education blog raises an issue that pulls together FOI and confidential information issues. Entitled "Is 'right to know' the new 'pay to play'?", the post is about Parents United's attempt to make public a report that contains a list of Philadelphia schools recommended for closure and the criteria used for developing the list. The failure of this attempt would mean special access to confidential information for those who partially funded the preparation of the report.

The criteria and list were put together by a contractor, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and the project was partially paid for by the William Penn Foundation. In turn, for this project, the foundation solicited donations from, among others, real estate developers and those promoting charter expansion, that is, from individuals and entities that stood to benefit from information about school closings as well as from the closings of particular schools.

Parents United sought to get a copy of BCG's report, but were told by the school board that the report was protected from disclosure as an "internal predecisional document." Parents United won the case before the Pennsylvania Office of Public Records, on the grounds that the document had been disclosed to the William Penn Foundation and the foundation was not "internal." The school board has filed suit in court to overturn the Office of Public Records decision.

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).

Update: February 7, 2014
It took the Jon Stewart Show three months to catch up with the City Ethics blog, but it was worth the wait. You have to watch the video they made about the Coralville, IA situation I discuss below. The defense of what occurred is truly incredible.

There has always been independent spending in local elections, and it has always been (and been seen as) a source of influence and pay to play. In the last few decades, disclosure requirements have increased, as have, in some states, limits on contributions. A few cities and counties have even instituted public campaign financing programs, to help rid campaigns of both influence and pay to play.

But recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have undermined public financing programs and disclosure requirements by allowing more, and more secret, independent spending. The effects can be seen in this year's crop of local elections. Two articles in today's New York Times, one focused on an Iowa town, the other on Boston, show some of the contrasts between the new and the old independent spending.