Small price for honest government Overzealous budget cutters should leave Ethics Commission alone.

February 14, 1996

IN 1992, Anne Arundel County voters made it clear that they were willing to pay to keep government honorable. They overwhelmingly approved a referendum to create a full-service Ethics Commission to keep an eye out for public leaders engaging in prohibited activities or exerting improper influence. There's no reason to believe they have changed their minds since then; there has been no public outcry against funding for an ethics commission.

Nonetheless, certain County Council members -- most notably Annapolis Republican William C. Mulford II -- are dying to prove how fiscally conservative they are by hacking the commission to bits. After slashing the budget by 40 percent last year, they're poised to wield the ax again, armed with figures showing the county spends more on ethics -- $56,890 -- than any other Baltimore area government. This amounts to a pittance in a $950 million total spending plan, but it smells like fat to them.

It isn't. Since its formation, the commission has rewritten the county's ethics code, now a 30-page document that details financial disclosure rules for public officials and imposes tougher registration guidelines for lobbyists; the number of registered lobbyists has tripled as a result, protecting taxpayers against those who might use public office and public officials for private gain. The commission has ruled on three potential conflicts of interest. It advises county employees on potential conflicts and is responsible for investigating ethical problems.

Maryland's record of ethics in government is disgraceful. We've sent more than our share of corrupt governors and county executives to jail. If $56,890 is more than other governments are spending on ethics, it doesn't mean Anne Arundel is wasting money. It means Baltimore and the surrounding counties aren't paying as much attention to ethics as they should. Does Anne Arundel really want to emulate Howard and Carroll counties, where county attorneys are responsible for investigating their own bosses? Or Baltimore City, where a comptroller was convicted of steering a city lease to her family's business and housing inspectors are allowed to own rental properties?

The rest of the region ought to be using Anne Arundel's ethics commission as a model, not the other way around.

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