No sense of proportion on conflict of interest


September 21, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

BACK IN the good old days, ethics was a foreign concept to most of Maryland's elected officials.

Everyone knew that the purpose of gaining elective office was not to improve the general well-being of society but to cut friends and family in on the spoils of government.

Nobody complained when mayors and county supervisors installed their ne'er-do-well nephews in cushy no-show jobs in the public works department, or enriched their cronies by carefully rezoning their properties.

But thanks to decades of much needed reform, the most egregious and obvious kinds of nepotism, favoritism and self-dealing have been wrung out of the state's political system.

That is not to say, however, that public officials are models of upright, righteous behavior. We have simply changed our expectations.

We now expect our leaders to conduct the public's business ethically. We worry a great deal about conflicts of interest and favoritism -- an improvement over the days when those were considered esoteric subjects better left to philosophers and academics.

In the intervening years, however, we have lost the ability to differentiate between serious conflicts of interest, where private gain is made at public expense, and those instances where poor judgment results in unfortunate appearances.

Redmond's troubles

The current troubles of Anne Arundel County Councilman Thomas W. Redmond are a good illustration of the current muddled thinking on ethical issues.

No one worried about Mr. Redmond's exclusive towing arrangement with the county police for the past 27 years. However, now that he is a councilman, alarms have been raised.

The fact that Mr. Redmond and 16 other county wreckers have contracts that are automatically renewed without a review or competitive bid is more troubling than the fact that Mr. Redmond continues to hold this contract while he is an elected official.

The county's current policy has created a exclusive arrangement that benefits a few towing companies. When police need to have a car cleared from an accident site, these wreckers get the first call.

Mr. Redmond's company earned an estimated $55,000 in towing fees from car owners and insurance companies and another $3,300 in direct payments from the county for towing abandoned cars or vehicles involved in police investigations.

No quid pro quo

Mr. Redmond did not have to lift a finger in his official capacity to retain this contract. Judging from the automatic renewals prior to his election, Mr. Redmond would have continued to benefit from this sweetheart arrangement had he lost his race for council.

His critics claim that he has a conflict of interest because he has budgetary control over the police department. If the police were to yank his contract, Mr. Redmond could supposedly exact retribution by voting against their budget or inserting amendments prohibiting the purchase of needed equipment.

Linking his contract to the police budget is a real stretch. No one has produced evidence that he used his council position to coerce the police department into continuing his contract.

All the hand-wringing over Mr. Redmond boils down to concern about an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Certainly, it doesn't look good for a councilman to be the beneficiary of the county's non-competitive policy. With his business affairs in tatters, it appears that the county is helping to bail him out. But being under a political cloud is much different from using his public office to enrich himself.

If we are to attract the best people to elective offices, we have to be more sophisticated in our analysis of conflicts of interest.

Anyone elected to a part-time public office comes with a bundle of interests. Are we prepared to have full-time council members who would have to give up their other employment?

Is everything a conflict?

Even if we do, a council member represents his or her neighborhood. Theoretically road repairs, school upgrades and park expansions will increase property values, including those of the elected official. Is voting for these improvements, a conflict of interest?

A county policy that creates a special taxing district to pay for road improvements designed to attract new businesses might benefit a company that employs a family member. Is that a conflict?

We have to be careful that we don't make ethics rules so restrictive that only people disconnected from the community qualify for office.

If we are to have a vigorous civic life, we need people in office from all walks of life, which means they come with their own special interests.

As long as we have requirements that elected officials disclose their potential conflicts, we should be in much a better position to differentiate between official actions that are done for self-interest and those done for the general interest.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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