Good government: It's cheap at any price


February 18, 1996|By ELISE ARMACOST

FOR SOME TIME now, it has occurred to me that while Anne Arundel government may lag behind other counties in some areas, public ethics is not one of them. So it came as something of a surprise to see Anne Arundel's Ethics Commission come under attack in The Sun's news pages last week.

The reporter found that the county spends $57,000 a year on ethics enforcement, far more than Baltimore and the surrounding counties. That's only a tiny fraction of the county's $950 million budget, but the reporter concluded, "In Anne Arundel, good government is expensive." As a result of a 1992 referendum creating a full-service ethics department, the County Council is "stuck with the bill," the reporter wrote, implying that voters had approved something stupid.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Bossism and political corruption in Maryland date back at least to the 19th century. In the 1970s, we sent one former governor, Marvin Mandel, to prison for mail fraud and racketeering and watched another, Spiro Agnew, resign the vice presidency after investigators found he had taken kickbacks. At the same time, Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson was convicted of 32 counts of corruption and Anne Arundel County Executive Joe Alton went to jail for accepting bribes.

In Annapolis, state lawmakers have wined, dined and exchanged goodies with lobbyists for years. Last year, the General Assembly finally enacted ethics reforms -- but already two lawmakers have sponsored legislation to water them down.

One of them, Del. Gerald J. Curran of Baltimore, told The Sun he does not see why he should have to let the public know if he attends a lobbyist's party because he might not eat anything. Of course, it's the fact that he attends the party at all that people care about, not how many egg rolls he consumes. As chairman of the House of Delegates' committee that oversees ethics law, one would think he would understand that.

This tawdry background helps explain why in 1992, Anne Arundel voters overwhelmingly approved an independent ethics office and why since then not a single citizen has complained about the paid, two-person staff the measure authorized. People are sick of dirty government. They want a vigilant, independent watchdog to keep it clean.

Anne Arundel's ethics department fits this description better than any in the area. Since its creation, it has cracked down on lobbyists, educated county employees about ethics laws, conducted investigations and issued opinions. It wouldn't be doing this without two paid staff members, an executive director and assistant, whose salaries comprise the $57,000 some budget-cutting County Council members are itching to slash.

State law requires that all area local governments have a volunteer ethics panel to rule on alleged violations. But volunteers often have neither the time nor the resources to investigate charges before they rule on them. Most governments leave that job to their own attorneys -- a system that creates an inherent conflict of interest even as it attempts to investigate a potential conflict. Anyone who thinks an independent executive director equipped with tools to enforce ethics laws is not important should look at what's going on in neighboring governments, where ethical issues are handled on the cheap.

Ethical nightmares

Baltimore, with no paid ethics staff, is an ethical nightmare. Former Comptroller Jackie McLean steered a city lease toward a building owned by her family. A law firm with close political ties to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been the beneficiary of more city business than any other. A number of city housing inspectors have owned rundown rental properties that are in violation of the city housing code.

All these problems, yet the city's budget director says he's never seen ethics board members submit a bill for an independent investigation. What a vigilant group they must be.

A few years ago in Carroll County, that jurisdiction's most powerful developer gave the director of permits and inspections -- who has tremendous say over his business -- $500 toward a trip to a convention. The county attorney, assigned to investigate ethics problems in Carroll, did nothing. The volunteer ethics panel did nothing either, until a series of critical editorials appeared in The Sun.

Just last month in Howard County, where the council also sits as the zoning board, a councilman committed a clear ethical violation. He voted for a zoning change to help two developers with whom he had recently entered into a lucrative land deal. He insists he did nothing wrong. Howard's ethics panel has yet to begin an investigation. It does pay a staff member to conduct such probes. But, county officials said, he spends 90 percent of his time working for the Animal Matters Hearing Board.

These ethics commissions sound more like dead dogs than watchdogs. What a shame if, for the sake of a few thousand dollars, Anne Arundel recasts its ethics department in their image.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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