By Michael Martello.
When a public official runs afoul of the laws and rules generally categorized as “ethics laws,” it contributes to the public perception that all public officials are unethical. But because local government is the level of government closest to the people, cities are perhaps best positioned to counter this perception. City councils lead the communities they serve; they can set the tone and foster a culture of ethical behavior for public servants.
It’s sometimes said that a community gets the level of ethical behavior in its local government that the community demands. We see those demands all around us. This conference session is designed to help local elected officials and their communities be proactive about ethical behavior. With some interesting case studies to guide us, a partnership among a local community, the League and the FPPC can provide numerous resources to help the community engage in dialogue about this important issue.
The Political Reform Act, Cities and the FPPC
Proposition 9, also known as the Political Reform Act, passed in 1974 and created the Fair Political Practices Commission. California voters approved the ballot measure on the heels of the Watergate scandal, and overnight California became a leader in requiring disclosure of financial and other interests from those serving the public. This includes elected and appointed officials, judges and some staff and consultants.
The statute enacted by Prop. 9 was only the beginning, however, as the fledgling FPPC had to hire staff, determine how to answer the questions of those subject to the Political Reform Act and adopt the regulations that today spell out what is required for compliance.
The regulatory effort spanned nearly 20 years. It seemed that every year, those subject to the Political Reform Act had new questions about issues that were not clearly spelled out in the act. By the mid to late 1990s, the regulated community found itself increasingly at odds with the FPPC over what it believed was over-regulation or a regulatory scheme that was too complex. At the same time, the FPPC was frustrated by a backlog of requests for written advice on conflicts of interest and by the growing number of violators who sometimes flaunted their disregard for the rules.
The Evolution of a Relationship
Throughout this 20-year period, League staff and the League’s City Attorneys’ Department worked closely with the FPPC — but often in a reactive mode. This dynamic was not the productive one that we enjoy today. At times, the relationship was openly adversarial. For example, in the early 1990s, the FPPC considered holding city attorneys, city clerks and others responsible for giving incorrect or negligent advice to an official that led to a violation of the Political Reform Act.
This got everyone’s attention, but particularly that of the City Attorneys’ Department officers, including Steve Eckis (who served as department president from 1991–92) and JoAnne Speers, then-general counsel for the League. Together they launched an effort to recast the relationship between cities and the FPPC and its staff.
The City Attorneys’ Department used the metaphor that we, the community regulated by the Public Records Act, were like troops in the field and the FPPC was like the Pentagon: We were all fighting for the same cause. At first this was easier said than done. Violations were rampant, and cities were generally treated much the same as other public agencies that typically demonstrated less awareness of — or regard for — many of the rules.
The work to build a better relationship with the FPPC continued under the leadership of Ariel Calonne, who established the City Attorneys’ Department FPPC Committee during his 1998–99 term as department president. From that point forward, a representative of the City Attorneys’ Department attended nearly every monthly FPPC meeting.
The fledgling partnership pressed on. The League worked closely with the FPPC on new regulations and invited its representatives to speak and participate in our training sessions for city attorneys, city clerks and others. FPPC staff reviewed and offered comments on a League publication that explained many of the ethics rules. And the League joined the FPPC in lobbying for more budget dollars for their own training programs.
The Institute for Local Government (ILG), the League’s nonprofit research affiliate, promotes good government at the local level with practical, impartial and easy-to-use resources for California communities. ILG launched an ethics program in 2000 and, in 2002, began publishing a bimonthly Western City column called “Everyday Ethics for Local Officials” that appeared in the magazine through 2014. “Everyday Ethics” presented public agency scenarios, explored ethical frameworks and provided helpful tools for local government staff and officials.
A new era began with the passage of AB 1234 (Chapter 700, Statutes of 2005), which requires elected or appointed officials to take two hours of training in ethics principles and laws every two years. The League, ILG and other local agency associations collaborated with the FPPC on programs and resources that supported the implementation and achievement of AB 1234 goals. But that work is far from complete.
Expanding the Partnership
The partnership described here was unlikely and hardly envisioned by Prop. 9 proponents. It was, however, the best approach to achieving the goals of the ballot measure. After more than 40 years, it is time to take it to the next level, and elected officials and other leaders can make a measurable difference in this effort.
Although the Political Reform Act does not mention the word “ethics,” 30 years later, AB 1234 both mentions ethics and requires training on ethics. It also added the concepts of transparency, fair dealing, access for all and fair public contracting, among other goals.
But work remains to be done. Attend “The Public Official and FPPC: Silent Partners in Transparency” session at the annual conference for new ideas to take back to your community and inspiration to make a positive difference.
Michael Martello is a retired city attorney and can be reached at email@example.com.