making local government more ethical
I believe that an ethics commission/ethics officer approach to local government ethics is far better than an inspector general approach. The simultaneous creation of an EC/EO approach in Palm Beach County, FL and an IG approach in neighboring Broward County provides a small laboratory for seeing which works better.

Thankfully, Brittany Wallman of the Sun-Sentinel has compared the two approaches in two articles, one yesterday, the other today.

Update: August 9, 2012 (see below)

People tend to think that all good government people are alike. The thinking goes that those who favor the improvement of ethics programs also favor such things as term limits, referendums and initiatives, and pension forfeiture by those found to have violated the public's trust. As a matter of fact, I don't favor any of these other good government approaches.

The one I want to talk about in this blog post is referendums. They are especially problematic because in theory direct democracy is an unadulterated good thing, but in practice it is sometimes disastrous.

Luis Toro, director of Colorado Watch, wrote an interesting Huffington Post post yesterday about ethics issues relating to Colorado's public trustee system.

Public trustees (one per county) oversee the foreclosure system in the state. They work things out between lenders and homeowners. Most of them are elected county treasurers, and ten of them are appointed by the governor (for some of the larger counties). The funds they spend are not tax dollars, but they are public funds.

One of the things that really ticks citizens off is when a local official uses his position to try to get out of a traffic ticket. The financial benefit may be minor, but there are two things that are major. One is that this conduct suggests that favoritism is common in the government. That is, the expectation and provision of special treatment is an indication of institutional corruption.

The second thing that can be major is the benefit when the charge is not just speeding or going through a light, but driving while drunk, leaving the scene of an accident, or other sorts of conduct that can seriously affect an official's personal reputation in the community. An official's reputation in the community is far more valuable than the cost of any fine. And yet reputation is not only left out of most ethics codes, but often ignored by the official, government attorneys, and even ethics commissions when such conduct is discovered.

Take the latest case, involving an Allen County, IN council member. According to an article in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel this weekend, an ethics complaint was filed against the council member, alleging that, when stopped by a sheriff's department officer, he called the county sheriff and, after the call, was allowed to leave without being subjected to a drunken driving test.

I have written three blog posts criticizing the ethics program created by Luzerne County, PA in response to one of the ugliest scandals in modern times. Luzerne County finally got its ethics program going this year, swearing in the members of its Accountability, Conduct, and Ethics Commission in March, with the code operation on May 24. The ACEC's members include the county manager, county controller, and district attorney, plus two citizens selected by the county council.

One month later, there are already signs of the program's weaknesses.

Here's an interesting political activity situation out of La Crosse County, Wisconsin. According to an article in the La Crosse Tribune last week, the county administrator was involved in supporting a referendum to give the city of La Crosse its own administrator. A city or county manager is not supposed to be involved in local politics, according to the ethics code of their own professional association, ICMA. But this issue was not in the county government, although it was in the county. And the administrator considers his support "promotion of my profession" rather than political activity.