Good start on ethics

June 26, 1995

Both Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the Baltimore City Council have acted swiftly -- and for the most part wisely -- in proclaiming rules against abusing public office for personal or political gain. No code of conduct, even when it is eventually incorporated into the city's ethics law, will guarantee against illegal or improper behavior by public employees. In many respects the standards city employees are expected to live by are vague and toothless. At least now the rules are codified in one document and bear the imprimatur of the mayor and the council. It's a good start.

The virtually identical codes were drawn up by the Board of Ethics, which has studied some of the spectacular lapses in conduct at City Hall in the past year or so. Probably more important in the long run, the two codes deal with the gray areas that connect everyday government and politics. And they specify that the appearance, not just the fact, of improper behavior is damaging to honest government.

Additionally, the council has fired a warning shot in an aspect of ethical conduct that still needs a lot more work. It passed a bill sponsored by Council President Mary Pat Clarke that prohibits members of city boards or commissions from soliciting political contributions from people who can be helped or hurt by the agency's actions.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. The legal ban on soliciting contributions should be expanded to accepting them, even if not requested, and it should be imposed on all city employees. Should a housing inspector, for example, be permitted to solicit or accept a political contribution from a landlord? The answer is an emphatic "no."

The ethics board is still working on revising the pathetically weak law regulating such conduct. In addition to the ban on contributions, it should strengthen the codes' prohibitions on employees acting to benefit businesses in which relatives have an interest. Now the ban extends only to spouses and children. The definition of family needs to be a lot broader than that, as some recent events in city agencies have demonstrated.

Another step the board should take is to seek more power for itself. Now the board can look into a complaint about improper behavior only if it receives a sworn complaint. It can read of a scandal in this newspaper but can't investigate unless someone formally complains. The board should have the authority and resources to initiate investigations. The best leads to unearthing government corruption often come from the anonymous tip or whistle-blower vulnerable to retaliation. The public can't be protected by a passive board.

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