Columbia Council's shameless act HOWARD COUNTY

October 13, 1992

Well, so much for ethics in the pursuit of good government. By a 5 to 4 vote last week, the Columbia Council put aside all pretense that it could police itself and decided to allow one of its members to vote on a proposed new golf course even though he has a conflict of interest on the matter. By allowing Joseph Merke, a council member representing Town Center, to vote on the golf course, the council mocks its conflict of interest policy, which took effect only last month.

The fact that Mr. Merke's home abuts the proposed site of the golf course, and that building it would increase his property value significantly, did not deter a majority of council members from their outrageous vote. The arguments presented by those who voted in Mr. Merke's favor served only to fuel the position of critics who say the Columbia Council is a closed club, oblivious to the expectations of its constituency.

Offering one of the most illogical defenses of the evening, council member Charles Acquard at first listed all the good reasons why Mr. Merke should not vote on the golf course, including the fact that his son would stand to inherit valuable property. Having said that, he went on to explain his own support of Mr. Merke's involvement. "I trust Joe," he said. "I believe he'll vote in the best interests of the entire community."

Council Chairman John Hansen attempted to justify his stance by pointing out that the council's new policy does not define a conflict of interest as a situation that would result in financial gain for the member in question. The policy only disqualifies a council member when the conflict "tends to impair the member's independence of judgment," Mr. Hansen extolled.

That kind of nit-picking equivocation discredits the entire process. Mr. Merke's integrity may be above reproach, but it is the perception of conflict, not just its actual existence, that should have guided the council's decision. The fact that the policy does not explicitly state this -- and that some council members would cite this loophole as an excuse for abrogating responsibility -- only underscores the sham perpetrated by the proceedings.

Acting in such an inappropriate way, council members have insulted every resident they were elected to serve.

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