Monitoring ethics is too important to be left to the uninvolved

November 03, 1996|By Elise Armacost

NORMAN G. MYERS Sr. is a good man, the kind of man who gets asked to volunteer for panels and charitable organizations because everyone knows he'll do it, and do it conscientiously. Not long ago Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary asked him to serve on the county ethics commission, an unpaid, unglamorous job. Mr. Myers said yes. Today, one can hardly blame him if he regrets being so agreeable.

Mr. Gary has been roundly criticized recently by The Sun and the Annapolis newspaper for four ethics-panel appointments, including Mr. Myers', on grounds that the four had ties to him. The Sun called them ''cronies.'' This came as a surprise to Mr. Myers, who is a Democrat (Mr. Gary is a Republican) and says he has seen the executive maybe three times since he was elected in 1994, including once by accident in a Roy Rogers.

The connection that supposedly makes Mr. Myers unfit is this: He owns a printing business, Revere Printing Inc., and during the 1993-94 election campaign Mr. Gary hired him to print $22,000 worth of bumper stickers and such; so did other candidates of both parties. Mr. Myers estimates that campaign printing jobs amount to less than 5 percent of his business. Revere Printing also completed $15,000 worth of work for the county during the Gary administration -- work that Mr. Myers' firm won, not at the behest of the executive, but through competitive bidding.

The critics -- mainly the media and Common Cause, a watchdog group that keeps an eye on government ethics -- say that Mr. Myers is compromised. That if faced with rulings involving Mr. Gary he might be prone to go easy on him because he once had been a customer. That, having held a county contract himself, he's not capable of looking at alleged contract infractions with a clear eye -- which is a little like saying a judge cannot rule on a DWI case because he drives a car.

A logical chain

Likewise, the critics look askance at anyone who contributes to a campaign (these four appointees gave a total of $1,725 to Mr. Gary over three years). If you've given a candidate money, you must like him. And if you like him, you might not be able to judge him fairly.

State and local ethics laws do not prohibit people from serving on ethics panels who have donated money, held county contracts, printed an elected official's handbills, catered his bull roast or sold him groceries every week for years. Indeed, some allow donations, campaign work and/or no-bid contracts while one sits on the ethics panel, which strikes me as too lenient. Should the laws be changed so that only politically ''independent'' citizens can serve?

To be truly independent, a commissioner would have to be free of ties to all the officials he may have to regulate, but also free of ties to the people who opposed them. After all, someone who supported Mr. Gary's opponent might not like Mr. Gary and might be prone to go hard on him. Commissioners who donated to a party would have to be nixed, too. They might be too partisan to be fair.

These criteria would effectively eliminate most civic and business leaders -- the very people who are willing to volunteer their time and who are knowledgeable about government. The uninvolved would become the ideal candidates -- even though, as state Ethics Commission Executive Director John O'Donnell notes, ''The standard of uninvolvement is not a very good standard.''

He recalls two people who served on the state panel -- an old country lawyer who had ''ties,'' and a sincere but uninvolved citizen. ''She didn't know enough about politics and government to recognize conflicts of interest,'' he says. ''He did.''

The notion that civic activity must be kept separate from politics or be polluted by it is ubiquitous and wrong. Civic activism is inherently political, and most politicians are civic leaders. Involvement in political life is a logical step for people who want to make a difference in their communities.

Yet two years ago an Anne Arundel PTA leader was pressured to resign her civic role when she announced she would run for the state legislature, as if the desire for greater opportunity to serve suddenly tainted her. Campaign contributions are generally viewed as bribes, rather than as tools to help the candidates we believe in get to where they can do some good.

Of course politics isn't all altruism. It's ego and influence, with tTC pitfalls that can trip the most well-intentioned. That's why we need ethics commissions and guidelines regarding who can sit on them. The standard for automatic expulsion should be simple -- not whether a person might happen to feel favorably toward an official, but whether he or she has a vested interest in the official's continuing in office.

Only one of the Gary appointees -- the recipient of a no-bid contract -- appears to meet that criterion. Mr. Myers and the others are just citizens who wrapped themselves in the whole cloth of community life, where political threads interlock with everything else.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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