Howard Ethics Bill Deserved its Veto

June 02, 1994

It was the right thing for Gov. William Donald Schaefer to veto a Howard County bill that would have required developers applying for zoning changes to disclose political contributions to County Council members. Credit also goes to Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, who encouraged the governor to do what he did.

The so-called ethics bill, which had been pushed for years by the county's state legislators, was severely flawed.

While its goal was noble -- to alert the public to potential conflicts of interest when the County Council sits as the zoning board -- the legislation never went far enough in including elected officials who have input into zoning decisions, particularly the county executive.

Moreover, singling out only developers, as opposed to such other interested parties as architects and contractors, seemed patently unfair. The bill appeared to be more a vehicle for grandstanding than an honest attempt to curb undue influence of special interests in land-use decisions.

Nevertheless, it was with some risk that Mr. Ecker and Mr. Gray opposed the measure. With elections looming, the mood of voters is not something politicians want to trifle with. The anti-incumbent movement that marked the last county elections may have changed some but no one is suggesting it has dissipated.

By the same token, all those parties who fought this bill -- or more accurately, the concept underlying it -- should not be let off the hook. An official with the Howard County chapter of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, for example, protested that an ethics bill was unnecessary because no scandal involving zoning has occurred in Howard County. The appearance of scandal, however, is as harmful as the reality; public confidence in the zoning board is inherently eroded by the fact that its members also serve as the County Council. Conflicts of interest, real or imagined, remain a problem.

Officials should begin fashioning an alternative to the measure that the governor recently vetoed. A bill that covers all of those who might benefit from a zoning change would address the concerns of voters and put an end to potential influence peddling.

Better yet would be a separate zoning board in a county that, judging by its growth projections and land use polemics, certainly merits one.

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