making local government more ethical
In most cities and counties throughout the United States, the city or county attorney is in charge of the government ethics program. I have written a great deal about why this is not a best practice, but city and county attorneys still keep providing further reasons. Here's one from Tioga County, NY.

According to an article in the Star-Gazette yesterday, Tioga County has a law that prohibits citizens from making copies of officials' annual financial disclosure forms. They can't even photograph them, type the data into a computer, or dictate the data into a phone.

Here's another story involving the lack of transparency. This time, the lack of transparency involves a company getting government grants.

According to an article from a week ago on floridaytoday.com, Brevard County, FL's commissioners approved a $205,000 grant for Project Magellan, a business development at the Melbourne (FL) airport that is "expected to bring 1,800 jobs paying an average of $100,000 apiece." The grantee's name was not provided.

According to an article yesterday on floridatoday.com, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission approved a $20.8 million grant for the same mysterious project after only three minutes of discussion, which consisted primarily of the minority leader saying that he was “going to trust the professional staff” of the Department of Economic Opportunity “that they’ll do the right thing.”

According to Wikipedia, a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is "a model in particle physics in which at high energy, the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, are merged into one single interaction."

It appears that the case of Michael Quinn Sullivan and his trio of organizations, Empower Texans PAC, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (a 501(c)4) organization), and Empower Texans Foundation (a 501(c)(3) organization) may provide a Grand Unified Theory in the field of government ethics, bringing together the fields of campaign finance, lobbying, transparency, and conflicts of interest.

Can anyone volunteer for a local political campaign without it being considered a contribution? Isn't it everyone's right to do so? Isn't this just about the most important thing a citizen can do, short of running for office herself?

According to the Toronto Metro News website last week, a "political strategist" and lobbyist who was accused of being paid to work on a mayoral campaign responded, “I’m not getting paid a red cent, asshole.” Is there nothing left to say on the issue, other than about civility? Or is it a problem for a political strategist to offer his services for free without declaring them as an in-kind contribution?

I just finished reading the classic political science book Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl (Yale University Press, 1961). It might have been the second time around, because I did take an Urban Politics course forty years ago. The book happens to focus on New Haven, the city in whose suburbs I live and whose public campaign financing program I used to administer.

Who governs? is a question that is too rarely asked by those involved in government ethics. It is assumed that the only individuals who should be under an ethics program's jurisdiction are those currently in government office or with a government job. Often excluded from jurisdiction are numerous individuals who may be very important to the management of the community, including former officials, candidates, consultants and hired professionals (including outside auditors), advisers, party officers, power brokers and fixers, bidders on contracts, grant and permit applicants, those who own and manage contractors that do government work, such as charter schools and waste management companies, and those who work for independent, semi-independent, and public-private offices, agencies, and authorities. All of these people should be included in a local government ethics program.

Consent agendas, also known as consent calendars, are an excellent way to get around the disclosure of conflicts (and, as Dallas showed us in 2011, to amend ethics provisions without a discussion (see my blog post on this)).

A consent agenda is a way to deal, in a single motion and a single vote, with routine, non-controversial items, in order to save often a great deal of time. Board members are allowed to request the movement of a specific item on a consent agenda to the regular meeting agenda, but this is rarely done. Often, few board members have a clear idea what is on a consent agenda. Voting for it becomes a habit, like voting to approve the minutes. However, sometimes matters are placed there, with or without the knowledge of board members, in order to be passed with no attention or to prevent the need for particular members to disclose conflicts they would have to disclose were there to be a discussion and vote on the particular matter.