making local government more ethical
San Francisco's board of supervisors will soon vote on a number of amendments to its lobbying code (attached; see below). According to an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, the amendments are based on recommendations by local good government groups, which have pointed out that loopholes in the current law allow many lobbyists not to register. The amendments are sponsored by the board's president, David Chiu.

Independent Agencies
It is a good thing that the amendments extend the definition of "lobbyist" to those who lobby independent agencies, offices, and bodies. The officials who work for or sit on these bodies are some of the most lobbied officials, but they generally do not like to be included in government ethic programs and, therefore, are often excluded from them. Here are some of the agencies, offices, and bodies that are currently not covered, but would be:
Government ethics groups come in all shapes and sizes. City Ethics, an ordinary nonprofit, has a website with huge amounts of information about government ethics, and no financial resources. The American Dream Initiative, a social welfare organization founded last year, apparently has large financial resources, but no website and no information about government ethics.

I say "apparently" because, according to an article that went up yesterday afternoon on the Austin American-Statesman website, the American Dream Initiative recently funded ads that cost about half-a-million dollars criticizing a Texas attorney general candidate. The ads, during the week before a run-off election, say that the candidate, a state senator, was reprimanded by a securities regulator for having taken kickbacks. They also ask viewers to contact the candidate and tell him "to support ethics reform legislation to make government honest."

It's questionable whether a contractor, developer, grantee, or other individual or entity that seeks special benefits from a local government should be permitted to make sizeable campaign contributions to candidates for positions in the local government. But if they are not permitted to make such contributions directly, they should not be permitted to make them indirectly, either.

According to an article today on the KPBS website, development companies and other real estate interests found a way to support the incumbent San Diego county supervisor's campaign without declaring, in the speech that was purchased with their money, that they were providing the support. They did this by contributing $100,000 to the county deputy sheriffs association PAC, which in turn funded flyers for the supervisor candidate. The flyers told citizens that they were paid for by the county deputy sheriffs association, with no mention of the developers.

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.

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