Domestic politics

July 05, 2002

WHEN DAVID M. Sheehan talks about Anne Arundel County government business, for whom is he talking?

That is the question being asked of County Executive Janet S. Owens, and the answer is one the people of Anne Arundel County have a right to know.

Mr. Sheehan is Ms. Owens' husband, political strategist and campaign manager. According to reports in The Sun, Mr. Sheehan involved himself in more than his wife's election: Mr. Sheehan discussed county labor negotiations with the former Anne Arundel official handling the contracts during 1999-2000. He telephoned County Council members on matters of import to Ms. Owens' administration. A former law partner says Mr. Sheehan took calls about county business at his law office.

When asked to clarify Mr. Sheehan's role in county government, Ms. Owens angrily denied that he has any role. She characterized the reports of his involvement in county business as "innuendo," "biased reporting," "over the edge" and "absolute harassment."

Her angry diatribe does a disservice to all, especially herself. Which is too bad, because she has a credible record of her own.

This is not an issue of ethics because Mr. Sheehan has no financial interest in any of these matters. And this is not an issue of sexism, as Ms. Owens indignantly claimed, because the same question would be asked if she were a man.

It is an issue of clarity and accountability. The public understands and accepts the kind of dinner-table conversation that occurs in a marriage where a husband or wife is doing the public's business.

But if those discussions carry over to government offices, the public's perception changes. Who's to say the county wouldn't benefit from Mr. Sheehan's input, provided the public knew his duties and for whom he spoke? Clarity would keep the questions about "the first husband" to how he plans on securing Ms. Owens a second term.

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