Michigan local government officials see few ethics violations but support stronger policy

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE CENTER FOR LOCAL, STATE, AND URBAN POLICY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The Fall 2014 version of an annual study called the Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) indicates that most county, city, village and township officials see very little evidence of corruption in their governments.

At the same time, they support a variety of reforms to strengthen ethics policies at both state and local levels.

The MPPS is a program of University of Michigan’s Center for Local State and Urban Policy CLOSUP), housed in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.  CLOSUP does a variety of research, including direct methodologies such as MPPS, to keep policymakers, academics, and the general public informed. The Center helps students get involved with and learn about policy, and facilitates cross-communication between researchers and government officials and their constituents, including publications,  presentations, and media outreach.
Due in part to the expertise of Barry Rabe, CLOSUP Director, the Center has an emphasis on energy and environmental policy. However, the MPPS is a key program of CLOSUP.
Though it is conducted in conjunction with key partners Michigan Municipal League, Michigan Townships Association and Michigan Association of Counties, it is an independent information-gathering survey not influenced by their agendas.

The survey goes out twice yearly to all 1,856 local governmental units in Michigan; it does not include state officials. The survey sent out in the spring asks virtually the same questions every year to establish trends in such areas as budgeting, finance and operations. The fall survey covers different issues each year, determined in part by what CLOSUP sees as happening in the state and in part by discussion with governmental partners.

It is perhaps because of those partners that MPPS enjoys an excellent return rate. The ethics survey received responses from county administrators, board chairs, and clerks in 64 counties; city mayors and managers in  210 cities; village presidents, managers and clerks from 177 villages; and township supervisors, managers,and clerks from 905 townships for a total of 1,356 jurisdictions, or 73%.

Each survey results in the release of a report, which now constitutes a substantial informational resource. The MPPS began in 2009, according to Thomas Ivacko, CLOSUP Administrator and Program Manager.

Ivacko, a co-author of the report entitled, “Michigan local leaders see need for state and local ethics reform,”  has been with CLOSUP since 2001. After receiving a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in public administration from the University of Michigan, he served in a variety of capacities at the U of M Institute for Social Research.

Co-author Debra Horner joined CLOSUP in 2008 and has worked on the MPPS ever since, including as the MPPS Project Manager. She received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Michigan, her dissertation about the different ways to think about individuals’ engagement in political processes.

The MPPS on ethics in government found significant differences between large and small jurisdictions in some areas, but not all.

On average, 95% of those responding say that conflicts of interest happen never, rarely, or only occasionally in their jurisdiction. But only 14% of large-jurisdiction (30,000 or more residents) said that such conflicts never happen, compared to 31% of those from small jurisdictions (under 1500).

“On some of these questions, we set a pretty high bar,” Ivacko comments. “We defined the conflict as only if the local official or his or her family member would benefit from some decision they vote on, but we didn’t ask about something like doing a favor for a friend.”

Another set of questions that found great differences between smaller and larger jurisdictions concerned accusations about improprieties, including Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on the subject, violations of the Open Meetings Act, and general accusations. While the percentage of jurisdictions reporting FOIA requests about ethics was about a quarter (26%) overall, larger jurisdictions came in at 42%. In both instances, jurisdictions reported a very low number of those requests resulted in findings of legitimate ethical concerns — 3% overall, 5% in the largest jurisdictions.

The numbers great increase when it comes to the Open Meetings Act. The overall percentage of 18% breaks down into 11% in the smallest jurisdictions versus 44% in the largest jurisdictions. Of course, as the report notes, larger jurisdictions are likely to have more committee meetings that must comply. As far as the broader question of any kind of accusation of ethics violations, 23% overall report receiving at least one in the last year, with 5% reporting that there was legitimate concern, whereas 41% of large-jurisdiction respondents report receiving accusations, and say that 14% turned out to be legitimate.

Another interesting variation appeared in the way local officials rated other local officials. About 70% said they believe others across the state are very or mostly ethical, but when asked about their own jurisdictions, 88% said they find them very or mostly ethical, including a huge jump from 15% to 53% who responded with “very ethical.”
This brings up a recurring question: are the respondents telling the truth?

“We tried to think about that in designing the questions, to do things that minimize underreporting,” says Ivacko. “The biggest thing that works in our favor is that we promise confidentiality and we go back to these same jurisdictions twice a year, so they know we protect that and they trust us.”

One source mentioned in the report, “Who is Telling the Truth? A Validation Study on Determinants of Response Behavior in Surveys” by Peter Preisendörfer and Felix Wolter, indicates that only 63% of people answered honestly when asked about a criminal conviction. However, Ivacko commented in this much different situation, “My gut sense is that yes, there is some under-reporting, but it’s not very significant.”

Only 48% of MPPS respondents find state legislators very or mostly ethical, while the executive branch fares better at 57%

The MPPS also found that only 59% of jurisdictions have an official code of ethics. Ivacko says that such findings relate to the mission of CLOSUP very well. “We certainly hope that local government leaders will get a better understanding of what’s happening in peer communities. Hopefully those that don’t have a code of ethics will consider it.”

A clear MPPS finding is that local government officials support strengthening ethical rules at the state level. The questions were developed “based on recommendations for ethics reform set out by the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition” of Southeast Michigan. They included prohibiting honoraria for executive branch officials at the state level (which is already prohibited for the legislature) — a concept that 76% agree with, either strongly or somewhat — requiring disclosure of gifts (76%) and a cap on the amount of such gifts (77%).

There was 70% agreement that the state should have a “revolving door” policy, that is require that state legislators and executive branch employees should wait a year or two before becoming a lobbyist or employee of a company which works with the state.

Interestingly, while local officials believe that  state-level disclosure of financial interests is a good idea (68% agreement), they do not feel as strongly that local officials should fall under the same rules (44% agreement).

The full report can be found at http://closup.umich.edu.

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