making local government more ethical
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.

Imagine that you're a county supervisor with a $92,000 salary and, despite the salary, you're allowed to hold an outside job (because the county supervisors before you gave you, and themselves, this opportunity). With a sizeable salary, there would appear to be no reason to work in any field that would create an appearance of impropriety.

Although in 2008, Orange County, Florida's Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform Task Force recommended (report attached; see below) that the county have an ethics board selected by a variety of community organizations, following the model of Miami/Dade County, and Section 2-457 of the county ordinances did provide for (with liberal use of the magic word "may") an ethics advisory board to be selected by the chief judge of the local circuit, Orange County does not appear to have an ethics board.

What it does have is an ombudsman. That is, the county took an inspector general approach to government ethics (and fraud and waste). Not only is that not what was contemplated by the task force, but the individual chosen to be the first ombudsman does not appear to be independent, nor have the credentials or background of an inspector general.

For the second time in a year, a local ethics commission has been the subject of a grand jury report. The first was San Francisco's (see my blog post). There, it was a civil grand jury and the focus was on the commission. Here and now, it is a criminal grand jury, and the focus is on the county executive and other officials, as well as ethics commission members. The county is Suffolk, on Long Island, a suburban county of 1.5 million people.

The Need for an Independently Selected Ethics Commission
The Suffolk grand jury report shows an extreme example of what happens when ethics commission members are selected by high-level officials in a poor ethics environment. This worst case was one of ongoing secret, political interference in ethics commission matters and ongoing political warfare that placed the ethics commission right in the middle between the two front lines.

Update: December 20, 2012 (see below)

It looks like outsourcing may finally come to local government ethics. No, this doesn't mean that a city's hotline will be picked up by someone in India (in fact, hotlines in some localities are already outsourced to corporations). What it means is that the ongoing failure of scandal-ridden San Bernardino County (CA) to come up with an ethics program (see my blog posts on this) has finally been accepted as part of its government's nature. So, according to an article in the Press-Enterprise this week, the county supervisors have decided to outsource the county's ethics program to the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). And the FPPC has agreed to take on the job, applying the laws for state officials and employees to those in the county (the FPPC also has ethics provisions relating to local officials and employees, but it generally does not enforce them itself).

Here's an interesting conflict situation out of Forsyth County, Georgia. According to an article in the Forsyth News, a county commissioner owns a company that buys county water and sells it to county residents who used to have wells. The company owns the infrastructure that supplies water to four subdivisions in the county. It is one of several companies that do this. The companies are charged the flat commercial water rate, rather than residential rates that increase with use.

The question is, should the county commissioner participate in negotiations involving water contracts between the county and a city within the county, since the city would apparently be a water reseller, as well?