Too Much Soap in Ethics Proposal

COMMENT

August 14, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Like water and oil, politics and ethics don't seem to mix very well, unless you add a little forced-bonding agent such as soap. That's the theory behind Jeffrey D. Wilson's proposal for a

unified comprehensive ethics and financial disclosure system for Harford County government.

The County Council president terms it the culmination of his nearly five years on the legislative body, a farewell gift, as it were, for the Harford citizenry.

This is a gift that the public should carefully examine, however.

While it may spring from the noblest of intentions, with perhaps a hint of self-indulgent puritanism customary for politicians retiring from the race, the proposal could end up creating more bureaucracy and confusion than it aims to eliminate.

It's a "good government" bill, the kind of apple-pie measure that's hard to oppose on principle. And when fault is found in details, the critic is open to the charge of being an obstructionist nit-picker.

Introduced in time so that the council will have to act on it before the November election, the 40-page proposal will either pass or force incumbents running for re-election to explain to the public why they voted against ethics in government.

It's a nice attempt at political arm-twisting by Reverend Wilson, who's not running for re-election.

He says that it's the refinement of draft legislation he circulated a couple of years ago, which was confusing because it maintained the separate ethics and financial reporting provisions under existing law.

Mr. Wilson's measure merges these two different sections of the Harford code, brings them both into conformity with state law and guidelines, and creates a new, larger board to regulate the law.

The County Council is now responsible for financial disclosure records, while a three-person board appointed by the county executive oversees the ethics law. Mr. Wilson proposes a five-member ethics board, appointed by the executive and the council, to oversee the combined requirements. The result would be to expand the coverage of these laws from about 20 Harford officials to nearly 100 people, including appointees to advisory boards, such as the library trustees.

All this might be needed, given the numerous cases of abuse and impropriety that took place during this four-year term of office. What's that? You hadn't heard of any such cases? Well, neither has the council president. His few examples of conflicts come from years past -- all of which could have been remedied in some reasonable manner.

The cases he cites include a last-minute ethics board ruling that Councilman Robert Hooper couldn't vote on a landfill issue because he was a trash hauler who might benefit in a special way from the council decision; a question about Patricia Tanner serving as chairman of the county health planning commission while on the board of an out-of-county hospital; and the old story of Habern Freeman's working as a physical therapist while collecting the county executive's salary.

You don't have to have a crisis, or make one up, in order to improve the ethical standards in government. It's certainly better to avoid knee-jerk reaction to a single incident in crafting comprehensive reform.

But this measure would create more requirements, apply to more people, including non-paid advisory board volunteers, and expand the disclosure to even more family members of these officials.

And while inflation makes $50 worth half what it was in 1981, when the code was last revised, the Wilson legislation lowers to $25 the value of a gift an official or her family member could receive from someone who might be affected by the official's governmental decision.

It's too much, a vast bureaucratic spider's web that's unneeded. It's going to cause a lot of folks to decline public service, particularly in appointed positions. It's going to open up any number of decisions to second-guessing about motives and whether someone's brother-in-law got a $29 pen from some developer and whether the value should be figured at retail or wholesale price.

The otherwise idle gadflies will have a field day.

A number of Harford officials won't be affected, because they serve in state offices. That group includes the judges, state's attorney, sheriff, etc. Too bad, says Mr. Wilson, but we can't regulate them if they are not under our jurisdiction.

OK, fair enough. But then Mr. Wilson points out that added disclosure requirements for Harford policy board members are mandated by the state Commission on Ethics. If we change the law, we have to include their rules because the commission must approve the county's code.

We think our elected officials, of different parties and persuasions, would blow the whistle on suspected conflicts, bringing them to public scrutiny. And that a motivated citizenry could expose conflicts of interest and suspicious gifts made to public servants, if the officials did not.

Any official that ignores such public warning for his own benefit will find the action challenged in court, if not through an administrative appeal. Elected officers who tolerate unethical practice will surely have a limited political career.

We applaud the council president's intention to leave a "legacy" of expanded ethics for Harford government. Some items are worth adopting, such as speedy review of cases. But we also conclude that too much soap in the total mixture generates an overflow of foam that is ineffective and superfluous.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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