Make Good Government Good Politics

Thursday, July 10, 2014

As we celebrated Independence Day last weekend, Americans had a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, too many communities in Georgia and around the country will be hard-pressed to extend that pride to their governments, as inquiries into ethical breaches by public officials—such as the investigation of suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis—dominate the news. States and localities must respond by adopting the best management practices and control systems not only to eliminate self-dealing but also to promote excellence in governments’ endeavors. Citizens must pressure public officials to make good government good politics.

Nowhere is this more crucial than in Georgia, which in 2012 was ranked 50th in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, receiving particularly poor marks in ethics enforcement, lobbying disclosure and political financing. Georgia recently capped lobbyist gifts to lawmakers at $75, finally coming into line with other states, but it still remains far below the standards that Georgians deserve.

Unfortunately, ordinary citizens tend to overlook these critical issues because—let’s face it—lobbying regulations and contracting practices are not especially sexy political issues. But Georgians need only look next door to appreciate the very real cost of lax ethical standards. In 2011, Jefferson County, Alabama, declared the then-largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history thanks to corruption surrounding a huge sewer repair project which eventually sent 17 people to jail. Residents will pay the price as their sewer rates (already among the nation’s highest) rise 8% annually for four years and 3.5% annually thereafter in order to pay down the ruinous deal-in-the-dark. Good government is also good for your pocketbook.

Citizens must be vigilant in order to avoid financial quagmires by demanding transparency and accountability from their public officials. While no state is perfect, successful practices are at work all across the country, and every state would be wise to learn from its neighbors to spread success. Connecticut, which ranks second in the State Integrity Investigation, imposed a ban on political contributions from lobbyists and state vendors in 2005 to combat “pay to play” schemes in which elected officials reward donors with lucrative contracts. New Jersey topped the list thanks to strong ethics laws that protect the independence and punitive powers of the State Ethics Commission, a ban on all gifts from lobbyists, and mandatory annual ethics training for all employees. But the recent Bridgegate scandal shows that even the best states may require further reform.

Trust in American government is at historic lows, but our response cannot be disengagement, cynicism or a dismissal of all public undertakings. Instead, we must set high standards for our public officials and fill the ranks of elected offices and government agencies with innovative, dedicated public servants who collaborate to find the best way to serve the public good. That’s the credo of The Volcker Alliance, founded by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to promote excellence and rebuild trust in government at every level. It is a mission we invite all Americans to join as we celebrate our nation.

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