New Ethics Laws Will Change Nothing

Santa Clara County is going forward with a new ordinance to govern lobbyists. By definition, everyone who has an issue or interest is a lobbyist. But this new ordinance would apply only to those who are paid to redress county government.

These ethics ordinances are usually poorly written and implemented, and rarely enforced. The “so-called” ethics laws give the illusion that there is good government. The truth, as pointed out by Supervisor Joe Simitian, is no law is a substitute for honest and ethical public officials.

The lobbyist ordinance in San Jose, for instance, is a travesty. It is 30 pages long, poorly written and unenforceable. The law also requires lobbyists to pay registration fees, which is constitutionally suspect based on the First Amendment—free speech should be free. But who cares about lobbyists’ rights?

That being said, lobbyist’s paid activities should be transparent, because the public has a right to know that their government is not for sale. But when the paperwork is egregious and the system is set up to make people look bad, or there is a “gotcha” mentality in the ordinance, it is doomed to fail. Right now, anyone can file a complaint with the City Clerk alleging a violation, including any political opponent or nut job. Hey, they are people, too. This can waste city employees’ time to follow-up on such nonsense.

The county’s new “ethics” laws are a result of the George Shirakawa Jr. scandal. The county’s credibility was hit hard by the failure of current systems. New ethics laws will not solve that problem; they will only create more chances for gross negligence in the bureaucracy.

Most elected officials are honest and hard working, as are lobbyists. Those people who serve as paid advocates are essential to the process, because they help inform elected officials on issues and concerns not always brought to their attention by government staff. Most public employees are honest, but when they are not, a lobbyist will often bring that fact to the attention of a policymaker. It is the duty of the elected official to question both lobbyists and staff to make the best decision possible for the public.

In short, elected officials can trust both lobbyists and staff, but they must also verify the information they are receiving. That is their job. Finally, elected officials should always make the best decision for the public good, regardless of who supplies the information. They have to be able to say “no” to the lobbyist and staff.

But far too often, elected officials make decisions that are antithetical to good public policy. Whether influenced by staff, lobbyists or other interests, it is the decision that goes against the public interest that makes the populace cynical of the process and elected officials.

Joe Simitian is right. New ethics laws are not the answer. Electing officials with integrity is the only real solution.

Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.

14 Comments

  1. If most elected officials run for office with a message of being competent or effective, then their inability to create good ethics laws is either an indication that the problem is too big for any of them, or that they don’t really want to change anything – at least with respect to ethics.

    I do believe the problem is too big for a lot of them, but I also believe that a lot of them don’t want to change anything with respect to ethics.

    I agree that most of them wouldn’t knowingly break the law, but I also believe that most of them engage in ethically challenged behavior when it is legal to do so.

  2. >  New ethics laws are not the answer. Electing officials with integrity is the only real solution.

    Rich:

    What happened?  A rare attack of common sense.

    Did you sustain a bump on the head, or what?

    The only “ethics laws” I am sympathetic to are prohibitions on “revolving door” job hopping.

    There should be proscriptions on politicians becoming lobbyists for two years or so.

    There should be proscriptions on government employees going to work for government contractors.

    • Transparency is the answer—government employees going to work for contractors is fine—as long as we know about it.

      Lou, given your agreement, I may have to rethink my position.  wink

      • > Transparency is the answer—government employees going to work for contractors is fine—as long as we know about it.

        Really?!

        So the government employee who prepares a Request For Bids, and is known to prefer Vendor A, gets hired by Vendor B at a “better than market” salary so Vendor B will have a better chance of winning a contract.

        • Shine a light on the event and it doesn’t happen.  Too often though, there is no bright light or the deal happens after the fact. 

          We can’t stop everything.  But an ethical person knows the difference—and most people are ethical.

  3. Laws are for the law abiding. “Ethics Laws” are for law abiding people who possess some basic level of “ethics.”

    Look no further than San Jose… Mayor Sunshine Reform humbugged voters with the “ethics” portion of his campaign platform. Sure he did what he said he would do in terms of enacting his “Sunshine Reform” package. But it is full of so many convenient loopholes as to be meaningless.

    Just look at the scorecard and tally the waivers Reed and the council has granted to allow former politically allied City Employees to register as lobbyists vs the number they have DENIED to former City Employees who are not allied with them.

    Sure the world needs lobbyists but why the “waiver” clause? So elected officials can reward former employees with a lucrative cloak of conferred credibility and influence based on political allegiance! C-O-R-R-U-P-T!!!

  4. “New ethics laws are not the answer. Electing officials with integrity is the only real solution.”

    That is brilliant in its simplicity.

    • You know when food has gone bad when it starts to smell or it starts looking like an amorphous blob.  You only know when a politician has gone bad when his friends abandon him.

      http://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/entries/3_5_13_integrity_george_shirakawa_board_supervisors/

      The problem is that unlike cheese, politicians actually go bad before they smell bad.  Politicians are described here and elsewhere as having courage, honesty and integrity up until the point it’s obvious that they don’t.

      • There is not a person alive, let alone a politician, who has not made a mistake or two.  The difference is always in the motive of the person.  If they make an honest mistake because they believed they were making the right decision at the time for the public or did they make a decision against the public for the wrong reasons.

        That is how we should evaluate their efforts.  It is not always an easy choice and there may be policy reasons for any number of decisions.  The key is why are they made. . .

        • You are the one trying to argue that ethics laws are ineffective and unnecessary.  I was just pointing out that people such as yourself don’t have a good record, or at least a good public record, of prescience when it comes to the ethical behavior of your political friends.

          As for your response.  Yes it’s sometimes the case that actions that may at first seem unethical, may just seem that way.  I know that you have a big heart when it comes to your friends.  You always give them the benefit of a doubt.

    • Really not that hard if the electorate is informed.  Great Merc Editorial on Sunnyvale race—if people in Silicon Valley know what is happening, they always respond appropriately.  The mistakes are made when they don’t make the effort to make an informed choice.

      That’s why campaigns are important—it is also why real journalism is important.

      • <Really not that hard if the electorate is informed>

        Agreed, but rampant immigration guarantees we never have even a literate electorate let alone an informed one.

      • …and when misinformed by politicians, The Merc and SJI the public makes misinformed decisions and seem resigned to live their mistakes – can you say V, W and B?