Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

DC pols are so easy to buy: ethics edition

Given that last week, Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson pleaded guilty and there was much hullaballoo until she resigned--since she won't be sentenced until October, she could stay on Council till then, yesterday's Washington City Paper piece on Councilman Harry Thomas' egregious misuse of public and donated funds for personal use, "Where The Team Thomas Money Went," makes me wonder why there isn't a criminal case filed against CM Thomas.*

Hell, Mayor Sheila Dixon of Baltimore City went down for lying and less than a couple grand of misused funds ("Dixon convicted of embezzlement" from the Baltimore Sun), while it appears that CM Thomas was operating on Jack Johnson scale.

In the meantime, people are starting to get worked up by Councilman Michael Brown's shilling for the gambling industry (although they just need to do a campaign comparable to Walmart to get into the good graces of the easily convinced) and there was an op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post, "How to drive corruption out of D.C." by local political consultant Tom Lindenfeld on 10 specific ethics reforms:

1) End “pay to play”: Ban contributions from any source that has or intends to seek a city government contract...

2) Ban contributions from lobbyists: Lobbyists who seek government access and want to influence officials through campaign cash have become a rampant and toxic problem here.

3) Crack down on independent expenditures: The courts have provided that PACs and so-called independent organizations can support candidates and accept and spend unlimited sums from donors. But this is just another way for insiders to curry favor with elected officials. ...

4) End constituent service funds: These funds — raised from campaign contributors, government contractors and those seeking special access to elected officials — were established to help council members assist needy constituents, but the situation today is that council members have $80,000 per year to direct. ...

5) Bar elected leaders from receiving free legal advice: Lawyers provide free or discounted services as a way to ingratiate themselves to elected officials. ...

6) Ban the practice of setting up nonprofit organizations to fund nonofficial mayoral travel and related expenses: These funds are largely hidden from public scrutiny and open to abuse and self-dealing. The funds come from the same insiders and government contractors, but their contributions are not limited by the same constraints as campaign or constituent service contributions.

7) All government meetings should be open and held in public: Despite a recent effort at improvement, we still have a weak statute on open public meetings. Boards and commissions still conduct most of their business behind closed doors. To avoid scrutiny, private meetings or caucuses are often used to reach decisions, with members appearing in public only to vote and announce decisions. We should make it illegal for a majority of a board, commission or committee to meet in private. Public business should be conducted in public.

8) Strengthen and enforce city contracting rules: It has become too common a practice for prospective bidders to have insider contact before or during the contracting process. ...

9) Impose a strict “bad boy” provision: Ban anyone who has been convicted of or financially penalized for insurance, financial, contracting or other types of fraud from doing business with the D.C. government.

10) Ban contractors working under false pretenses: Anyone who has misrepresented himself during the contract-award process should be barred from doing business with the city government, period.

It's a pretty good list, but is still incomplete. I'd add at least four more provisions:

11) Create neighborhood-sector plans and define consensus priorities. Use these priorities as part of a reformulated community benefits planning and negotiating process that is independent of Councilmembers, who more typically negotiate directly with interested parties, which usually leads to the directing of minimal amounts of money to Councilmember pet projects which tend to have little long term effect.

12) Similarly, convert the process of earmarking funds to social, human service, and cultural organizations by either the Executive Branch (Mayor's Office) or the City Council to an open and transparent grant funding process with objective criteria and a public process.

13) Currently, tax abatement requests are mostly driven by developer requests made directly to Councilmembers, who initiate specific bills for each request. Instead, this process should be converted into an open, transparent, and public process independent of specific requests made to Councilmembers.

14) The creation of a public process probably should be done for eminent domain and alley closing requests as well. Many of these types of requests go through Councilmember offices at present with limited oversight.

Plus, point 8) needs to be amended and expanded to specifically include City Council initiated contracts. By appending special deals to legislation, the Council can award contracts without having created a public process including a Request for Proposals. This was done by Councilman Vincent Orange to award redevelopment rights to the Florida Market to a well-connected group back in 2006.

And don't forget, we all need to read Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention.
book cover, Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention by Robert Klitgaard, H. Lindsey Parris
* Disclosure: CM Thomas and one of his staff helped screw me when I worked for once extant Brookland Main Street program, so I am particularly happy that he is likely to get tagged big time because of his illegal behavior.

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