Kim Nelson

Faculty Lunches with the Dean (No. 31) (Kim Nelson)

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The last round of Faculty Lunches with the Dean included Kim Nelson.  She talked about municipal corruption as a possible research question when we recruited her a few years ago, and recently she’s been working on it with Whitney Afonso.  I’m not sure if the topic was inspired by her time in Illinois and their colorful history of public corruption, but the issue is relevant in every state.  Kim summarized her research during our lunch.

It is important to remember that the council-manager form of government was born during the Progressive Era as a reaction to widespread public corruption.  The basic idea was that corruption would be reduced by emphasizing professional management and insulating the day-to-day operation of local government from inappropriate influence.  It made intuitive sense that professional managers would be more likely to promote integrity in budgeting and policy-making than elected officials—particularly mayors who had proven susceptible to improper influence.

The interesting revelation from the lunch was that after more than 100 years, there has been no research to prove that the council-manager form of government provides that protection.  In other words, Kim’s research is cutting edge and it has interesting implications for local government structure and governance.

A growing number of communities across the country have engaged in campaigns to change their form of government from council-manager to mayor-council.  They typically assume that greater accountability will be achieved with the mayor-council form, arguing that mayors, not managers, are directly accountable to the voters through the ballot box.  The public often is left with the impression that their interests will be better safeguarded with the mayor-council form.

The initial findings from Kim’s study tend to weaken that argument.  Using Department of Justice reports of public corruption from 1990-2010, Kim and Whitney assess the possible factors that place a municipality at greater risk for corrupt acts (excluding police corruption).  An initial run of the data for the years 1990, 2000, and 2010, found a connection between the mayor-council form and a higher risk of corruption.  One challenge of this research is that reliable data on public corruption is hard to find.  Public officials faced with corruption allegations sometimes resign, and for various reasons it may not be reported.  Kim is using federal data because there is a public corruption statute, and state law does not always capture it.

Whitney told me she didn’t expect the data to show much difference, and so she was surprised to find preliminarily that public corruption is roughly 60% more likely under the mayor-council form.  She and Kim are preparing a manuscript for submission to a symposium issue of Public Administration Review on public corruption.

Kim is careful not to get beyond the data in making definitive claims about the connection between the form of government and public corruption.  There is more research and analysis to be done.  And we know that the form is not a guarantee against corruption.  Charlotte has the council-manager form of government and in 2014 its mayor was convicted on federal corruption charges of theft and bribery.

At the same time, however, it will be important if the data continues to show that corruption is significantly less likely under the council-manager form.  Public corruption takes a toll on the citizens in affected communities.  It also undermines overall confidence in government institutions, and that makes it harder for all public officials to govern effectively.  Citizens and government leaders need to understand the impact of the form of local government on public corruption as they consider the most appropriate choice for their communities.  It is exciting that Kim and Whitney are breaking new ground in this important area of research.

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