making local government more ethical

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States and Municipal Ethics

Robert Wechsler
Transparency is one of the most controversial aspects of government ethics. It's so controversial that it is rarely discussed in terms of transparency. It is almost always discussed in terms of confidentiality, which is rarefly referred to by its popular name: secrecy. This careful use of words leads people to devalue transparency.

The first statement in any discussion of transparency in government ethics should be that transparency is one of the three areas of government ethics (...
Robert Wechsler
Two types of independence often clash when it comes to government ethics. It is important that government ethics programs be administered by independent commissions. But independent agencies often do what they can not to be subject to a local government ethics commission.

It is clear which sort of independence is more important, but independent agencies still put their interest in self-regulation ahead of the public's interest in an effective, trustworthy ethics program. This has...
Robert Wechsler
Incompatible offices is a form of conflict I have not dealt with in this blog. A good occasion to do this is a recent California attorney general's opinion interpreting the state's 2005 incompatible offices statute, which applies to local and state "public officers." The opinion provides valuable definitions, as well as useful perspectives on the idea of office incompatibility.

Robert Wechsler
Some local government ethics codes include a provision prohibiting officials from acting outside of their authority, which is especially directed at council members interfering in a city or county's management. I don't consider this a government ethics issue, since it does not necessarily involve favoritism, the official's personal interest, or anyone's personal interest. It is most often just a matter of the official trying to get things done through improper channels, which is a political...
Robert Wechsler
Update: March 19, 2011 (see below)

Last December I wrote a long blog post about the pay-to-play culture of Prince George's County, Maryland. The new county executive and the county's state representatives appear to have been working hard to make changes to end this pay-to-play culture, although you wouldn't know it from...
Robert Wechsler

"It's a very powerful story of a public official who wanted to do the right thing, who got appropriate advice, and then ended up being punished. He was punished for doing his public duty and voting, just because a political ally was involved. I don't call that a conflict of interest. I call that democracy."

—Joshua Rosenkranz, a New York lawyer representing Sparks City (NV) council member Mike Carrigan in his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a suit attempting to overturn a censure...