making local government more ethical
The mayor of Miami-Dade County has announced the formation of a Procurement Review Task Force to, according to his May 6 memo (attached; see below), "improve and simplify our procurement process."

The principal goals of the task force are:
To ensure that all procurements continue to be conducted with the maximum level of transparency, fairness and integrity."

To "make procurement more efficient, easier to navigate for vendors," in other words, to significantly reduce "non-value added requirements. This also includes a full review of any changes needed to promote and implement Public-Private Partnerships and innovations from the private sector."
Balancing these two goals is one of the most difficult aspects of procurement. It is very hard to simplify the procurement process and reduce its requirements, while preserving transparency, fairness, and integrity.

Many government ethics professionals don't like waivers. I think they're valuable. Basically, they are requests for an advisory opinion in which the official recognizes that certain conduct would constitute an ethics violation, but wants a determination that he can engage in the conduct due to special circumstances. The result of such a determination is the creation of a new, narrow exception to a rule. This is a good way of preventing bad unforeseen consequences of a rule. But waivers must be given only after a public hearing.

The value of a government ethics waiver is completely different when it is not an independent ethics officer or commission who makes the determination, and when there are no special circumstances that require a new exception. In fact, a waiver given by one or more officials without a very good reason sends the message that officials won't apply ethics rules when they don't feel like it or will favor certain of their colleagues (and, if they are in need of a waiver in the future, themselves). This makes a mockery of an ethics program and undermines the public's trust.

A conflict situation in my state of Connecticut is instructive regarding a basic concept of government ethics, as well as a basic concept of legislative immunity.

Legislators insist that they require immunity because their motives in making decisions cannot be questioned outside their body. Government ethics, on the other hand, does not consider motive, only conduct and relationships. This is one of the principal reasons why I argue that legislative immunity does not protect legislators from government ethics enforcement.

But when the talk is not about legislative immunity, it turns out to be perfectly okay to discuss a legislator's motives, as well as others' motives.

Background
According to a Jon Lender column in the Hartford Courant this weekend, (Disclosure: the Courant occasionally hires me to write op-ed columns on government ethics issues), the state's house minority leader made a strenuous argument against a bill requiring increased financial disclosures by for-profit nursing homes. His law firm lobbies for the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which opposed this bill.

Because Massachusetts has one of the better state ethics programs with jurisdiction over local officials, there are very few local ethics programs, unlike the situation in Florida, California, or Texas, for example.

But there have been some recent ethics reform efforts at the local level. Most recently, according to an article last week in the Boston Globe, the new Boston mayor has appointed members to serve on a new Ethics Committee, which will have the authority to develop annual disclosure statements, establish an ethics training program, and "reassess our internal policies and procedures."

The four EC members include Boston's corporation counsel, a lawyer specializing in government law, a university chancellor, and a former executive director of the state EC.

In Somerville, a suburb of Boston, the mayor has taken an unusual approach in the ethics ordinance he proposed last week. It is a combination of an ex parte communications prohibition and the disclosure of communications. Its focus is solely on elected officials, that is, on the board of aldermen and the schools committee. Here is a description of the proposed rules:

Here's a good way to get around local government transparency laws. If you want an appointee's activities to remain secret, let him be hired by a private entity, give money to the private entity sufficient to pay his salary, and don't communicate with him via government-owned computers or smartphones.

You might think that this would only occur with relatively obscure individuals and entities, aides who can do dirty work that an agency wants to keep hush-hush, hired by a social service agency that is afraid of losing its grant unless it plays along. But the case that led me to write this post involved former Connecticut governor John Rowland (who resigned in 2004 and later did prison time for accepting free work on his house from a state contractor), the city of Waterbury, and a local chamber of commerce.

"The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became — though even to use words like 'corrupt' or 'sinister' made serious people uncomfortable, so Katsuyama avoided them. Maybe his biggest concern, when he spoke to city residents, was that he be seen as just another nut with a conspiracy theory."

This seems like a classic description of the problem citizens have when they understand institutional corruption in a city government and try to get others to understand it. But I changed one term: "city residents" was actually "investors," and this is a quote from Michael Lewis's new book, Flash Boys, which was excerpted in this week's New York Times Magazine.

Reading this excerpt, about the way high-frequency traders took "advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s ... simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not," kept making me think of institutional corruption in local governments. The biggest difference is that it is the local officials themselves who draft loophole-ridden, rules and regulations (or fail to fill the loophones, or simply follow unwritten rules). Even when the rules were originally "well-meaning," they often become the basis for unfair advantages given to certain contractors, developers, grantees, and regulated businesses that, in turn, provide benefits to the officials, their families, their businesses, and their business associates.