in Houston, Texas
Houston, Richland Hills featured in new e-book on government ethics around the country
Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 04:00PM CST
By Steve Miller
ethics

The book on ethics has been written, the War and Peace for geeksters who find public policy a window to intellectual enlightenment.

If Local Government Ethics Programs were not part of the ebook model, it would be slightly larger than the Killeen phone book at 831 pages. It was compiled and written by Robert Wechsler, director of research at City Ethics Inc., a nonprofit that offers training programs and advice on developing ethics policies.

The free downloadable book is the go-to for anyone with an interest in how governments deal with ethics. If you can think of situations that arise, it’s covered, from procurement and patronage to enforcement and penalties.

The state of Texas is noted in 20 different anecdotes and examples, which Wechsler uses liberally in breaking up the barrage of policy description and history.

He notes a situation in Richland Hills, in North Texas, in which an energy company negotiating a lease on city property wanted to build the city a $200,000 community center. He notes that while some council members said they would not accept the gift until the deal was done, “the damage had been done; the offer was on the table before the negotiations were over and therefore would be seen as affecting the negotiations even if the gift was not accepted until afterward.”

We’d never thought of that. The wily energy company knew that simply putting it on the table would have an effect.

We’re particularly fond of the chapter on the city attorney’s role in ethics, which points a finger at Houston as an example of a poor approach to ethics.

From the book:

Houston’s city attorney was the principal creator of the city’s 2011 ethics reforms. The result left him wearing multiple hats:

* Chief drafter of the city’s new ethics program

* Chief ethics officer, providing advice to council members and others on ethics issues

* Supervisor of counsel to, and provider of staff to, the ethics commission

* Administrative supervisor of the inspector general’s office

* Adviser to department directors regarding employee discipline based on IG report recommendations

* Criminal enforcer to certain ethics provisions, a role handled by the law department’s chief prosecutor

* Appointer of special prosecutor when he deems this is appropriate

* Adviser to the council’s internal ethics review panel

* Director of ethics training

Would anyone but a city attorney have given the city attorney so many roles in an ethics program when, in a city that can well afford independent ethics commission staff, the city attorney should not have had any role at all in the ethics program?

Houston has grappled with ethics during the tenure of Mayor Annise Parker, first reconfiguring the city’s ethics policy and then failing in an attempt to establish a more formidable office of the inspector general, and finally ignoring the work of the prior IG office.

Wechsler points to Philadelphia and Atlanta as examples of stellar ethics programs. In both cities, it took massive scandals and corruption to foster the new programs. In Atlanta, as the city council was debating a series of recommendations, the mayor whipped out an executive order which applied to city employees.

“This upped the ante for the council, effectively daring them to pass weaker provisions to apply to the council and staff,” Wechsler writes.

In Philadelphia, which is known for its strong Office of the Inspector General, a 2003 scandal with the city treasurer and mayoral advisers and friends prompted three-part reform. Part one was the issuing of two mayoral executive orders creating an ethics commission with staff to oversee training, advice and financial disclosure, but as Wechsler points out, “It had no enforcement authority, and it was part of the mayor’s office” – the same mayor who had been connected to the previous malfeasance.

Part two was the passage of more stringent ethics rules by the city council, including an independent ethics commission. And finally, a new mayor, Michael Nutter, who created a Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform. Then there was a community element, “a local good government organization called the Committee of Seventy,” which put “constant pressure, including numerous reports and testimony, on the mayor and council to continue to improve the city’s ethics program.”

Wechsler’s service is complete. He says the book is ideal for journalists, and we couldn’t agree more. But it’s also a handbook for anyone interested in how ethics is practiced at a public level around the U.S. Reading it makes you aware more than ever how the term ethics, like transparency, is tossed about as more of a political buzz word than anything most politicians want to get serious about.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of ethics sign from the District of Columbia government.

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