A Culture of Local Government Corruption

This past Sunday’s New York Times had a fascinating article on the culture of corruption in Spain and other southern European countries – countries which for centuries allowed local mayors and magistrates to enrich themselves through graft and bribery.

Three short paragraphs were harsh:

Spain is by no means Europe’s most corrupt nation — Greece and Italy are considered more so. But the sheer volume of political corruption cases here is proving deeply embarrassing.

Judges here are now investigating about 1,000 officials ranging from small-town mayors . . . to former cabinet ministers. Even the country’s conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has turned up on a list of his party’s stalwarts who were supposedly taking payments under the table. . . .

There are so many scandals that some newspapers have taken to organizing all but the biggest developments in a quick-list format, rather than writing whole articles.

Why does this article fascinate me? Because in 28 years traveling to local governmental meetings and hearings in every section of our state, I have never – and I truly mean never – heard an elected official or staff person so much as quietly hint that money or favors could result in a different outcome. Nor have I heard any other land use attorney tell me that they’ve been approached about under-the-table payments.

Equally true is that I have never represented any owner or developer who has asked me how to grease the political skids through a form of payment or favor, nor have I ever been aware of a client who did so behind my back.

Yes, we occasionally read about corrupt acts, but those are the exceptions. So why are we so different from southern Europe? Why does our political culture function on the “up and up” rather than the down low.

I could give several answers that would reverberate with shallow-minded rhetoric about how America is a better country and we are a better people, but my own barf buttons would get pushed before I could hit the “publish” command that sends my words into the blogosphere.

Rather than trying to delve too deeply into why our local government culture eschews corruption, and rather than using my observation as an opportunity to engage in blather, I’ll just simply express gratitude.

    Too Much Information?

    Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I read the quoted article this past Sunday on my iPhone while sitting through a church service (which I occasionally do attend). And since I’m now tweeting, I sent it out into the world to all five of my followers before the final hymn. You can find me on Twitter by going to @terrelltom and become my sixth follower.

      Would you comment?

    Among my blog readers are other land use attorneys and several elected officials, planners and other city and county staff. I would love to know – by your comments below – whether your experience mirrors my own or whether you have ever personally experienced the type of corruption in our local governments that, according to the NY Times, is prevalent in southern Europe.

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7 Responses to “A Culture of Local Government Corruption”
  1. T.C. Morphis says:

    Tom, I concur. I’ve never seen actual pay-to-play corruption in North Carolina local government – there are some widely known examples of corruption at the State level of course. That said, I’ve seen some things that might come close (entrenched good ol’ boy networks for example). In contrast, I once saw a bribe given to a police officer in India. There’s even a term for it: baksheesh, which is used for both bribes and alms given to beggars. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baksheesh). T.C.

  2. Chris Callahan says:

    Tom, I agree with you never. I do know of one instance a town’s Zoning Administrator had some personal issues and had approached a few citizens for a “loan” or “help”. No where did it arise to a quid pro quo, and the town dealt with this immediately.

  3. macwhatley says:

    I served as Mayor or Commissioner of Franklinville in Randolph County for 20 years, and still serve as chair of the planning board, and I was never once offered any kind of questionable deal. Of course, we have just 1200 citizens. But I have never even heard of anything ever coming up about such a thing in Randolph County, on any level.
    To some extent I attribute this to the Local Government Commission, which rigorously reviews every annual municipal audit report, and which must give permission for any loan or bond issue. The LGC is the reason we haven’t seen a municipal bankruptcy in NC since the Great Depression, unlike other states. It was always frustrating to me when the whole ‘don’t trust government’ crowd talks about NC municipalities as if we were all Detroit or Stockton, CA. Of course, they only know what they hear talking heads rant about on TV.

  4. Jonathan Marshall says:

    I have not been aware of any bribes or related offers in over 25 years of service as a government employee. It is interesting, however, that in the last year through legislative action I have had to comply with State Ethics Act (SGEA) training and financial reporting. The requirement is due to being a member of the staff level MPO committee indicating there is a perception of a problem. They have recognized that these staff level MPO groups are advisory to an elected advisory group which in turn do not make final decisions on projects so there is movement to rescind the requirement. Of course there is also legislation to add sanitary districts to those groups required to comply with the SGEA. At least I will be ahead of the game in training and reporting if that goes through having already completed training and reporting for the MPO.

  5. Chris MUrphy says:

    I know of none Tom – while personal preference can sometimes lead staff members to “pick sides” in a case, everyone I have ever interacted with on cases always “plays fair” and will guide the case through the process in fair and unbiased manner. I attribute this to the openness of the process and the professionals on both sides of the table in zoning-related cases.

  6. David Owens says:

    In over 30 years of working in this field in NC I have never seen an instance of that type of corruption. I had a direct role in permitting many projects during my ten years with the state coastal management program. I never had anyone or neighbor so much as offer to buy me a cup of coffee. Everyone — staff, board members, developers, neighbors, and interest groups — would have been shocked if bribery or even soft favors were solicited or offered. A few folks occasionally hinted that they had political “connections” that regulators should be aware of, but even that never entered into individual permit decision-making in my experience. My strong sense in the ensuing 20 plus years is that most every local land use regulatory program I have dealt with in NC — and I have dealt with hundreds of them — has the same general ethic. There is no doubt the rare outlier, but I would be shocked if those are indeed not the very rare exception to the rule of good government in this respect.

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