making local government more ethical
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.

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.

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