Ethics Panel for the Columbia Council HOWARD COUNTY

February 17, 1993

Does the Columbia Council need an ethics panel?

That depends on what kind of panel the council decides to have. If, as suggested at a recent meeting, the ethics panel would only be responsible for re-evaluating an existing conflict-of-interest policy, then the council is engaged in a half-hearted and ultimately useless exercise.

As at least one council member has stated, little would be gained from an attempt to simply clarify conflict-of-interest rules. "The best attorneys in the world still will have fuzzy words to define conflict of interest," council member Charles Acquard said. "By its very nature, it's difficult to define."

The council needs to establish a permanent panel to examine thorny ethical issues as they arise, which is admittedly not very often. Such a body could recommend to the council solutions to such problems. In that way, recommendations could be tailored to the circumstances surrounding the particular dilemma.

Above all, an ethics panel should not be a subcommittee of the council, as was suggested last week. Such a body would raise its own conflict-of-interest questions. Instead, a panel should be made up of a group of appointed volunteers, selected for their impartiality.

That the council is considering a committee with the limited purpose of clarifying an existing rule shows how little it has learned from the very recent past.

One would have thought that following their embarrassing handling of the Joseph Merke case last year, council members would be more than willing to turn such problems over to another party. Mr. Merke was forced to resign from the council late last year after it was alleged he had a conflict of interest in voting on a proposed golf course that would abut his home, thereby increasing its value. Mr. Merke said the entire controversy tainted his reputation.

What the council failed to realize is that the entire body's reputation was tainted by that incident. Its confusion over the matter, including a decision to allow Mr. Merke to be among those who voted on whether he had a conflict, underscores the need for an impartial panel.

If the council wants to fill this void, it needs to stop half-stepping and do something worthwhile.

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