Fresh start on ethics

June 22, 1994

The Baltimore City Council has partly redeemed itself by swiftly -- if unobtrusively -- asking the Board of Ethics to advise elected officials about exerting undue influence on each other. There was no debate on the resolution introduced by Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, D-4th, so there were no recriminations about the attempted intervention of several council members in the trial of City Comptroller Jacqueline McLean. Nor does the resolution itself refer to the incident, in which several members visited Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan about a postponment in her corruption trial. But the connection is there, and it's a start.

Elected officials, particularly legislators, detest codes of conduct. The U.S. Senate was unable to plug loopholes in its own ethics code after its savings and loan scandal. Legislators' consider it their business to help people, especially constituents. There's nothing wrong with that most of the time. But there is a huge difference between a council member's getting an alley cleaned or a pothole patched and meddling in a criminal trial. A legislator who can't perceive that difference is unfit for public office.

There is a code of ethics for city officials, but it is narrowly drawn. Obvious financial conflicts of interest are regulated, but not much else. The glaring omission illuminated by the intervention in the McLean case is the failure to regulate contacts between public officials. Again, some are certainly proper. It is equally clear that some are not.

That is the task assigned to the city's five-member Board of Ethics, a part-time body that generally functions without public notice because it is rarely asked to handle more than routine advisory opinions. It may have to draw some fine lines between constituent service and unethical meddling. But some of the issues are not at all hard to define.

Where a government process is supposed to be carried out by objective standards through some impartial procedure, officials not directly involved should not butt in. One obvious example is the awarding of a contract, whether by competitive bidding or through some evaluation process. Even-handed administration of municipal regulations is another. Above all it is plain that the judicial process should be free of meddling by people in the executive or legislative branches.

Now it's up to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to see that the ethics board moves quickly. Two of the five members are responsive to him: one his own representative, one the city solicitor's. A tightly drawn code of conduct should be ready for adoption by the council after its summer recess. Failure to adopt one before next year's city elections would result in some casualties at the polls.

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