The Commissioners Miss Ethical Point

COMMENT

November 08, 1992|By BRIAN SULLAM

The Carroll County commissioners just don't get it. When organizations, companies or people who are regulated by the county start paying for regulators' travel, meals or entertainment, the recipients run the real risk of compromising themselves and the county government.

For the commissioners to say that they have no second thoughts about the Carroll County chapter of the Maryland Home Builders' Association's contributing $500 so that Ralph E. Green, the county's director of permits and inspections, could attend a convention demonstrates a profound lack of judgment and sends the wrong message to the 800 other county employees.

Government officials accepting gifts -- regardless of the size -- is no small matter.

The person who accepts a gift incurs a sense of debt or obligation to the giver. This isn't new. The Romans had a saying for it: "Quid pro quo" -- or, in English, "something for something."

You don't even have to search very far in the Bible to find references to this important ethical question involving obligation.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, laid out the matter very succinctly: "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other."

He also said that no one can serve both God and money.

In Carroll County, our public officials must choose between the public interest and private interest. There should be no question about it. Trust is one of the fundamental tenants of democracy. The public has to believe that the government is honest, fair and treats all citizens equitably regardless of their position or wealth.

If that trust disappears, public trust wanes and cynicism flourishes. Favoritism and corruption become acceptable, which further reinforces the public's cynicism. Public participation in government falls off and democracy withers.

Public officials -- elected and appointed -- often have to make some very tough calls. Determining what is in the public interest is often not all that easy. The public, however, should feel that the officials have arrived at those decisions impartially and independently.

Parents and grandparents are probably the only people who can come closest to giving gifts unconditionally, and even they expect their children to show some gratitude -- by being more obedient, eating their vegetables or making their beds.

You can't say that about the home builders or any other group that the county regulates. Those groups -- from home builders to retailers -- give gifts with the intention of getting something back.

Even if the Home Builders' Association gave the $500 for the trip out of the goodness of its heart, the county should not have accepted it. Next time there is a decision that benefits the home builders, the suspicion will arise that the county is returning the favor. A compromised government loses its legitimacy.

From their public statements, it appears that at least two of the commissioners don't understand that. Donald I. Dell considers the amount to be too insignificant to be a bribe. The question is not whether the gift was a bribe -- which it wasn't -- but whether the home builders' gift taints the department that regulates its members.

The mere fact that the question arises should disturb all the commissioners. If the home builders wanted to give $500 to the homeless shelter, there wouldn't be any questioning of motives. But when the recipient is the chief regulator of the county's developers and home builders, all sorts of red flags should go up.

During these tight times, it is good of the county to save money. Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said the home builders' donation saved the taxpayers money. There will be more occasions when private contributions will be made to the county government or its agencies.

But there are times when these contributions are appropriate and there are times when they are not. The commissioners should know the difference. If they don't, they can always ask for help from the ethics commission.

Where does favoritism become corruption? The commissioners should never travel down that path to where they have to draw that line.

As long as the commissioners know how to say "no," they will not compromise the integrity and standing of the county government. In addition, if they say no, they are much more likely be looking after the interests of the county's citizens.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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