Ethics violations? What's the big deal?

Comment

July 23, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

THE ANNE ARUNDEL County Council's chairman admitted to using his powerful position to benefit a private client, but the biggest complaint from his colleagues was that the ethics investigation took too long.

Something's wrong here.

Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., an accountant, was reprimanded for lobbying administration officials on behalf of a client that has a contract to build the county jail in Parole.

Mr. Klosterman agreed in a consent order from the county's Ethics Commission not to lobby for the client, TGMI, or any other clients that do business with the county. The consent order should have served notice on other council members.

The event should have made the chairman and his six colleagues dedicate - or rededicate - themselves to good government practices. They should have reflected on Mr. Klosterman's actions and looked at their own. They should have promised county residents singularly and collectively that nothing like that will happen again.

They could have used the moment to talk publicly about the importance of disclosing relationships with companies doing business with the county.

Council members and the public could benefit from a discussion about the ethics issues lawmakers face. Council members are considered part-time employees and most of them face conflicts because they have full-time jobs or operate businesses in Anne Arundel County. Some lawmakers have lost private deals because they properly erred on the side of caution: Close relationships with some clients are close calls.

Discussions like these are the only discussions that should have come in the aftermath of the Ethics Commission's consent order.

What the public got instead was unfair criticism of the commission for a slow ruling, although the commission is small and Mr. Klosterman added to the delay.

It should be noted that the chairman's violation wasn't council's first example of bad government practices. In May, four of the seven members, including the chairman, violated the letter and spirit of Maryland's open meetings law by meeting privately to discuss the fiscal 2001 budget, which they approved two days later. The open meetings law was enacted to ensure that government isn't done behind the public's back, but council flouted that statute.

It's troubling that county lawmakers have so little regard for the public's right to know what they're doing and so much tolerance when a colleague violates well-defined ethical standards.

And it's more troubling that they shrug their shoulders when confronted with their behavior.

Trust me, they ask.

That's way too much to ask. Anne Arundel County voters elected the council members to make decisions in their interest. So to some extent, trust is a factor. But verification is another factor.

Will the council ever get it?

After the consent order, there was no time for contrition. No time for talking about how to make government work better for the public, in sunshine. Councilwoman Shirley Murphy acknowledged that Mr. Klosterman made a "stupid" mistake. She should have stopped there instead of whining about the Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission sounds like a powerful body, but it is more like the Wizard of Oz. It has weighty title, but is operated by two part-time employees. Betsy K. Dawson, the commission's executive director, works 32 hours a week, as does her one assistant. In addition to keeping track of recalcitrant council members, the pair have a lot of other duties, including collecting and maintaining disclosure forms, keeping lobbyist records and responding to requests for advice.

To demand that Ms. Dawson's 1.6 full-time-equivalency office to issue faster rulings is absurd.

If council members feel decisions take too long they should beef up the staff and give the director more help.

They won't want to go this route, however, because a bigger staff would also mean increased scrutiny of public officials, including council members.

Would they want that?

One other commission function is teaching ethics to public officials in a short one-time course. In light of the council's problems, a refresher course should be added regularly. Or Ms. Dawson could facilitate a public discussion of ethics with council members.

The County Council is an important counterweight to the county executive, but it loses its strength when it loses the public's trust. With County Executive Janet S. Owens enjoying popularity and prestige, the council's inattention to the public's interest weakens the panel.

Circling the wagons and whining about side issues when a member operates unethically does the council no good.

And an astute public isn't going to buy it.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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