City Council Ethics

June 20, 1994

Even the most civic-minded Baltimoreans can be forgiven for not knowing their city government has a code of ethics. It so rarely enters public discussion. But members of the City Council are not so easily forgiven. The two, or three or five members of the council -- depending on whose story you believe -- who visited Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan about Comptroller Jacqueline McLean's trial are a case in point. They were butting in on a judicial matter in which they had no business.

According to Judge Kaplan, they were even flying under false colors. He said he expected only one council member, plus some citizens, but was actually confronted by five.

Unethical conduct? Well, maybe. Depends on what standard you use. It is not unethical if the strictures of the city's written code of ethics (enacted by, who else?, the City Council) is concerned. The conflicts of interest section of the code deals only with financial matters. It doesn't cover using public office to influence the actions of another government body, even the courts.

Like most legislative bodies, the City Council dislikes written codes that tell its members what they can't do. Even the august U.S. Senate was incapable of regulating lobbying by its members in the wake of the scandalous behavior of five senators the savings and loan disaster. Nevertheless, it is time for the council to face up to its responsibility to define what a member can and can't do in dealing with other government agencies.

It wouldn't be all that hard. Council members properly see one of their roles as ensuring that constituents are efficiently served by municipal agencies. But there is a line between what is innocuous constituent service -- getting potholes filled or trash-strewn alleys cleaned -- and what is not. Some clearly unacceptable activities would be intervening in government processes that are supposed to be objective, impartial and free of outside influence -- such as awarding contracts. Even-handed administration of regulations would be another. Surely the judicial process heads the list.

Both Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Council President Mary Pat Clarke have called on the council members for an explanation. They should do more. They should insist the council adopt a resolution calling on the Board of Ethics or some other qualified ,, body to define precisely the limits beyond which council members -- or any city official, for that matter -- should not go in contacts with other government agencies. Most of the prohibited actions would be a matter of common sense. These bans should be enacted into law, with meaningful penalties for violations. Any council member who opposes such a bill would be unfit for re-election.

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