Commissioners' Ethical Blind Spot CARROLL COUNTY

October 21, 1992

If Carroll's commissioners don't see anything wrong with the Carroll chapter of the Maryland Homebuilders' Association paying for a county official's trip to a convention, then they are in desperate need of instruction on conflicts of interest. There is no excuse for allowing the county homebuilders to pay for more than half of Ralph E. Green's trip to the Building Officials and Code Administrators national convention in St. Paul, Minn., last month.

As chief of the county Bureau of Permits and Inspections, Mr. Green has the responsibility of inspecting the plans and construction of all the county's buildings. Contractors cannot build without his department's approval. Inspectors also ensure that all the homebuilders are complying with the county's building code. Mr. Green's job is to look after the public's interest -- not after the homebuilders'. This means that Mr. Green should not be accepting any gratuities, gifts or favors from the homebuilders. Once he does, Mr. Green's department loses its integrity.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell may be satisfied that the $500 contribution to Mr. Green's trip is not a "bribe." "Ralph [Green] would have to cut them some favors, and he's not going to do that," Mr. Dell said. But Mr. Dell misses the point.

The problem is that there is no predicting what Mr. Green will do in the future, and it already appears he has done the homebuilders a big favor. At the convention, Mr. Green voted with the majority to reject a change in the group's building code that would have changed the size and height of interior stairs. The Sun's Amy L. Miller reported that Hampstead builder Martin K.P. Hill said the $500 was well spent just on that vote alone.

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge also seems to be missing the point when she applauds the private sector for contributing to the county official's trip. Does this mean that it is permissible for the restaurant association to pay for convention trips for the liquor board or the teachers' union to pay for school board junkets? Even though Mr. Green doesn't decide building code issues by himself, the mere payment for the trip creates a sense of obligation or the appearance of obligation to a group of special interests.

No county official -- elected or appointed -- should be so obligated.

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