Lemon of an Ethics Bill

April 03, 1995

You take your car to your mechanic and ask for an engine overhaul. Later you find that the mechanic ignored the engine and instead put on a whole new set of tires that weren't needed. Not only that, he put the tires on wrong!

This is something like the approach taken by state legislators from Howard County as they've tried to lessen the conflicts of interest between the local Zoning Board and individuals testifying in zoning cases.

For the fourth year in a row, state Sen. Martin G. Madden has sponsored or co-sponsored an "ethics bill" that would require applicants for zoning changes to disclose their financial contributions to County Council members, who also happen to sit as the Zoning Board in Howard County. Senator Madden has been trying to get various models of this bill on the road since 1992.

This year's model differs from its predecessors in that disclosure of most contributions of $500 or more during a four-year period would apply to gifts made to the county executive as well as to council members. An improvement? Barely. The publicizing of political contributions would be required of developers but not of other parties with an interest in the land-use process, such as community associations, attorneys and consultants representing parties in zoning cases. The retooled 1995 ethics bill looks suspiciously like the proposals that have come before it -- with loopholes so gaping a mini-van could drive through.

Mr. Madden and the other mechanics in the Howard delegation are wasting their time if they speed past the obvious solution to the conflict problem. A complete overhaul is needed: the creation of a zoning board separate from the County Council. Why continue this dangerous arrangement whereby council members are making important zoning decisions involving people who help fund their political campaigns? Surely this concept must register with reform-minded Republicans in Annapolis.

The 1994 model of Howard's zoning ethics bill won approval from the legislature but then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer towed it to his veto scrap yard. Should the Madden bill pass, as appears probable, we hope Gov. Parris N. Glendening will likewise give it the cruncher. This lemon doesn't roll. Howard County, where land use controversies dominate, needs a separate zoning board.

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