Coming to grips with ethics

January 16, 1995

Baltimore's city government has taken the first of what we hope will be several steps toward adopting an up-to-date ethics code for its employees. The draft code circulated by the Board of Ethics is fine as far as it goes. What's missing are some real sanctions for transgressors. Presumably they will come when the board gets to a promised revision of the city's toothless ethics law, but even so the code could use some sort of punishment for violations of its rules of behavior.

Judging from some of the provisions of the proposed code, the board's members have been reading the papers in the past few months. The draft pointedly reminds members of the City Council they have no business interfering in court trials, as five of them did during the Jacqueline McLean case. It also states that officials should not meddle in decisions that could benefit themselves or members of their families. Although it doesn't specify that relatives of high officials or members of municipal boards are ineligible for city contracts, it contains a stern -- and obviously needed -- warning of the potential for conflict of interest.

Equally important, it notes that city officials must avoid even the appearance of a conflict between official actions and their own or relatives' personal interests. Some officials take a very narrow view of what constitutes such conflicts.

City Council members, on the other hand, take an exceedingly broad view of their right to lobby for constituents. The board believes they shouldn't try to bend laws or regulations to benefit individuals, meddle in hiring or try to steer contracts. To some council members, these activities are what politics is all about. It is not easy to draw a line between responsibly representing a constituent and unethical interference in government decisions, but the distinction is essential to honest government.

We are disappointed that the board did not adopt a more stringent attitude toward soliciting political contributions. It would forbid city employees from using their power to raise campaign funds, or to interfere with such activities by their subordinates. That's not enough. No city employee should be permitted to solicit or accept a political contribution from anyone the employee deals with officially. The potential for abuse, even if nothing is said explicitly, is so obvious we are puzzled the board did not ban such political fund-raising.

The board has wisely provided that citizens who serve part-time, even without compensation, on city boards should be subject to the same standards as full-time officials. Public-spirited citizens with their own business and professional interests need to be conscious of an even greater potential for conflict of interest than regular employees.

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