making local government more ethical
One of the most important ways of preventing ethical misconduct usually does not appear in an ethics code, because it does not involve a traditional conflict of interest. I am referring to non-legislative roles played by local legislators, especially roles that enable them to create a pay-to-play environment. These roles are played in the two principal areas where ethical misconduct occurs:  procurement and land use decisions.

In past blog posts, I have focused on land use involvement, especially the usually informal authority given to local legislators over land use decisions in their districts, what is known as "district courtesy" or, in Chicago, "aldermanic privilege." This "courtesy" has also been a major ethics problem in such places as Dallas, Prince George's County, MD, and Gwinnett County, GA.

Legislative involvement in the bidding process, whether formal or informal, can lead to equally serious ethics problems.

According to an investigative article on Nashville's WTVF-TV site yesterday evening, a former property assessor had help from a developer in disposing of her home and buying one from the developer, and also undervalued nine of the developer's properties by a total of $9.5 million over three years.

One of the wonderful things about local government ethics is that every mayor or county executive feels qualified to act as if he was establishing the first local government ethics program ever. It's sort of like choosing what will go in a bento box, except that there are no rules (e.g., only one sushi roll, or you've got to have miso or the clear soup).

A new bento box is being put together in the infamous Prince George's County, MD. It was only a year and a half ago that I wrote a blog post on new Prince George's County ethics reforms, and now the county is at it again. Here's how the box looks in the county executive's July 24 proposal, as outlined in a press release:
A big controversy surrounding the race for mayor of Honolulu is focused on the state's pay-to-play culture of the past, and what pay to play actually is. The reason for this is that a former Hawaii governor is running for mayor, and he is being supported by Bob Watada, a former state Campaign Spending Commission executive director who is known for bringing the state's pay-to-play culture to its knees during his 1994-2005 term in office.

According to a November 2005 look at the executive director's career in the Hawaii Reporter, he fined nearly 100 companies for making "false name" contributions and excessive contributions primarily to the then Honolulu mayor and the then governor, who is now running for mayor. "The city prosecutor and federal government took over some of Watada’s cases charging corporate executives of those companies with money laundering, making illegal campaign contributions and tax evasion. The companies participated in the scheme to boost their chances of getting government contracts, concession rights or zoning clearances. Watada also either headed investigations, or uncovered information, that led to a long line of powerful politicians going to jail."

One politician who was not prosecuted was the then governor. Watada says that he was clean, that he didn't know who made contributions, that he didn't know about the illegal contributions made to his compaign, and that the fact that he closed down his committee rather than returning illegal contributions was common practice and perfectly legal.

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.

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