making local government more ethical
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.

"It was like dandelions. You just accept them. They were there, something you've seen all your life."

Dandelions are a perfect metaphor for institutional corruption. In this case, the dandelions were extra payments (beyond those due to retirees) made by Detroit's two pension funds, to active employees (54%), retirees (14%), and the city itself (32%), the latter to lower annual contributions to the funds, according to a front-page article in today's New York Times. The extra payments totaled almost $2 billion over 23 years. The quote is from Detroit's former independent auditor general, Joseph Harris.

Why would pension boards hand out payments to active employees? May it have had something to do with the fact that the boards were controlled by government employee unions? Back in 2008, I wrote a blog post which dealt with this issue. The post talks about whose property a pension fund is:  that of the employees who will be paid from it or of the citizens whose money is being spent? In good times and when pension board trustees are acting responsibly, the citizens have little to lose. But in bad times and when pension board trustees are acting irresponsibly, not only is the citizens' money wasted, but they may find themselves paying extra money of their own.

This blog has been closely following cases where the legislative immunity defense has been used in government ethics proceedings. This week, the same issue arose with respect to an open records proceeding in Wisconsin. According to an article posted on the Madison Isthmus site yesterday, Wisconsin's attorney general has argued in an open records proceeding that a state senator is immune from a suit based on the state's open records law throughout her term in office, pursuant to state constitutional provision Article IV, Section 15, which provides that members of the state legislature "shall not be subject to any civil process, during the session of the Legislature."