making local government more ethical
Transparency in government should not be limited only to officials. Disclosure rules should also apply to everyone seeking special benefits from government, such as contracts, permits, or grants. For one thing, without transparency on both sides of every transaction, it is impossible for the public or officials to know if there are any conflicts that particular officials need to deal with.

One popular way to get around transparency is the shell company. A company can easily be set up so that its ownership is secret. This is often done with development companies. The company has to have a front man, at least an attorney, who appears at zoning board meetings and the like. But it usually is not required to disclose the names of its owners. Without the disclosure of these names, how can anyone know whether officials, their family members, or their business associates own a company involved in a matter before them? And without disclosure, it is easy for an official to say she didn't know her brother was an owner, if this fact comes out later.

No one wants a political government ethics program, and yet the people who most often worry out loud that it will be political want it to be political. This apparent paradox can be explained by looking at the various meanings of the word "political." Which of these meanings is most important to a government ethics program, and which of them are, well, "just politics"? And what can a government ethics program do to lessen politics?

In a quality government ethics program, every official and employee involved in a matter publicly discloses any possible conflict and withdraws from the matter. But what if a city or county does not have a quality government ethics program? How is the public to know whether conflicts are being handled responsibly?

According to an article in today's New Haven (CT) Register, the Greater New Haven Clergy Association has FOI'ed a list of city employees and elected officials with immediate relatives who attend or have attended, work/ed with, or are members of any boards or advisory committees of a company, or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates, involved in purchasing a city school to turn it into a charter school.

In October, I wrote a blog post about a report commissioned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), based on an investigation of an ethics issue involving a Washington, D.C. council member and transit authority board member. The focus of my post was on the conflicted situation of a city council member on a regional board.

Fortunately, this situation led the WMATA to hire the same law firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, to make recommendations to it regarding improvements to its governance rules and its code of ethics.

The second round of Chicago ethics reform recommendations, based on the ethics task force's second report (attached; see below), have been proposed by Chicago's mayor Rahm Emanuel (click here to read a summary of the mayor's recommendations). The focus of this second round is on enforcement and other procedures. The mayor's recommendations accept most of the task force's recommendations, rarely go beyond them, and rarely show that any critical faculty was brought to bear on them.

The result would be an unwieldy enforcement process, with many steps, many offices and individuals involved (often with roles outside their core activities), much secrecy, little consistency in setting ethics policy and making precedents, and a serious obstacle to having officials and employees openly participate in the ethics enforcement process.

It's a nice coincidence that, just when I was preparing to write a blog post about a trendy thing in the corporate world called "open-book management," the former comptroller of Dixon, IL, Rita Crundwell, pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge that she siphoned more than $53 million from the town of only 16,000 people (over a period of 21 years), according to an article in the Chicago Tribune.

Open-book management is, according to an article in last week's Economist, "sharing all or most of a firm's financial data with employees on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis." In other words, it's budget transparency. Companies that practice some form of open-book management include Harley-Davidson, Southwest Airlines, and King Arthur Flour.