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.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

DC ethics legislation misses the point: focus on what produces corruption as a regular outcome, not monitoring

The blog entry cited below on systems of corruption focuses on the book Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention (originally suggested to me by EE). The book is published by the World Bank and focuses on "developing" nations, and regardless of the fact that DC is a "developing" polity, having been under "Home Rule" or local control for the past 30+ years, the reality is that systems of corruption function similarly regardless of the age of the polity.

From the description of the book

Corrupt Cities
is a practical guide to assist in the diagnosis, investigation and prevention of various kinds of corruption. Bringing together both a conceptual and practical framework, the publication is designed for citizens and public officials, especially at the municipal level. The approach presented discourages more controls, more laws and more bureaucracy, while focusing on systematic corruption and its preventive measurers. It encourages consideration of the economic costs of corruption, rather than moral or ethical factors, as the driving force behind anti-corruption efforts. It also emphasises that "fighting corruption should not be considered an end in itself, but an orienting principle for reforming urban administration."

The arguments put forth are supported by examples of anti-corruption strategies, particularly from Hong Kong and La Paz. The publication also includes practical tips to adapt these strategies to difficult scenarios, for example, in cities/communities characterised by political indifference, bureaucratic inertia, and where citizen support may exist but is yet to be mobilised.

Chapter 3 describes the system; Chapter 4 is on diagnosis of specific corrupt systems and situations; Chapters 4 and 5 are on overcoming bureaucratic resistance to honesty; and Chapter 5 is on creating a sequenced plan of action to heal corrupted systems, rupture a culture of cynicism, build political momentum and transform city government.

Chapter 3, "Corruption as a System" starts on page 31. As it says on page 32:

Corruption equals monopoly plus discretion of public officials minus accountability.

This is the issue in DC (and Prince George's County).

As long as many aspects of government operation and procedure are un- or under- defined, opportunities for corruption are paramount.

So if you look at the big problems in DC government related to corruption--these are the items that I think about, there are others, and even though the items are numbered, it's not a rank-ordered list:

1. Councilmembers are not considered full-time employees, so even though they make about $150,000 annually, they can have other jobs, and the firms in which some Councilmembers work have business with the city government;

2. The contracting process is not independent from influence from either the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch, setting up major opportunities for corruption. This is complicated by disadvantaged business enterprise contracting requirements--not because DBEs can't do quality business, but because it is a way for firms affiliated with various factions of elected officials get preferential treatment;

3. Lobbyist-lawyers can provide "free" services to Councilmembers such as legal services (this is to change in the proposed law). This is particularly helpful when Councilmembers need representation in the face of their unethical behavior;

4. Processes for determining "community benefits" in relation to development projects are not well defined, allowing extra-normal opportunity for Councilmember involvement;

5. The same goes for tax abatement requests--there isn't a single point of contact to initiate the process, developers start by going to the Councilmember's office in which the project site is located;

6. Campaign fundraising generally;

7. Inaugural committees and activities are not publicly funded, they are privately funded, and the donors to these activities tend to have business with the city government;

8. Eminent domain actions;

9. Funding for projects conducted by community organizations and arts organizations is not handled by an open and transparent application process, but is handled behind closed doors in the Executive and Legislative Branches;

the question we need to ask is does the proposed ethics legislation address these issues in a substantive manner?

For the most part the answer is no. (Also see the weekend column by Colbert King, "A toothless wonder: D.C. Council ethics legislation falls short," from the Post.)

Some people will say that the solution is term limits. Maybe it is. It's true that longevity increases the opportunity for misdeeds--even though long serving elected officials in places like Arlington County or Montgomery County don't seem to be engaged in corrupt activity.

But Prince George's County, Maryland has the strongest term limits of any local jurisdiction in the region--a two term maximum for Councilmembers and the County Executive--and Jack Johnson proved that for some people, an 8 year limit on tenure is merely an excuse to accelerate wrongdoing.

Some people in this region say that the attacks on corrupt behavior are a function of racism. I think that they are wrong--the issue is one of correlation vs. causation--because it's merely a reflection of demographics and who predominates in elected office as a result. In DC and Prince George's County (and Baltimore City) the stakes for the benefits of patronage are high and because of demographics, the politicians tend to be African-American.

In other places, where the demographics are different, corrupt white politicians get taken down too, such as Alan Hevesi in New York State ("Disgraced former New York Controller Alan Hevesi will keep rotting in prison as parole board turns him down" from the New York Daily News), Vincent Fumo in Philadelphia--he makes the people around DC, even Jack Johnson, look like the penny ante people they are, and former Illinois Governor Rudy Blagojevich ("Blagojevich's wife, daughter plead for leniency" from the Chicago Tribune).

The color of the skin of the corrupt is a function of place and demographics.

The real color that matters is green.

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