Fire Mitchell

February 16, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s decision to make an ethically challenged former state senator head of an important new department should be reversed for a multitude of reasons:

First, it's a gross political payoff. As director of Maryland's new Office of Urban Development, Clarence M. Mitchell IV would be paid $92,000 a year - a reward for his support of Mr. Ehrlich's campaign for governor.

He would have authority over important development projects - along Pennsylvania Avenue and in the Mondawmin, Reservoir Hill and Patterson Park neighborhoods - for which he has no professional background.

Mr. Ehrlich's choice recalls his campaign promise to change the "culture of corruption" in Annapolis. Mr. Mitchell has been censured by the General Assembly's ethics committee for failing to disclose a $10,000 loan from businessmen whose legislative interests he might have to vote on.

Reporting in this case is far more than a technical requirement: If you have financial obligations to people whose interests you're voting on, the conflict of interest is obvious.

The culture is corrupted when friendship and politics matter more than the people's business. A culture in which financial deals trump the public interest is what must be changed. The Mitchell job takes us in the wrong direction.

A Democrat and an African-American, the former senator was a convert to the Republican governor's banner early in last fall's campaign - and helped to some extent in Mr. Ehrlich's energetic pursuit of black votes. For that, he is rewarded with a high-paying state job at a time when virtually every department in state government must cut spending sharply and freeze hiring to address a huge budget deficit.

Then there are the city's concerns. The governor has given the former senator significant responsibility for important city projects. Mr. Mitchell's qualifications for that post appear to include his service in the Assembly - not good enough. The head of an office with so much potential importance for the city should have technical expertise. To put him in this job calls into question the governor's commitment to advancing the projects under Mr. Mitchell's control.

Surely high-quality talent exists. The governor ought to reconsider this appointment - or failing that, the General Assembly should find a way to reject it.

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