A city inspector general

July 11, 2004

AFTER SEVERAL years spent revising Baltimore's ethics code, the city signed into law last week a stronger, clearer standard of conduct that will apply to more city employees. As the revised law rightly states, the code and its conflict-of-interest provisions should be viewed by all as the minimum expected of public servants.

In a city once known for its political families, nepotism has been nearly outlawed. Baltimore elected officials now will be barred from hiring their spouses, children, grandchildren, certain step-relatives, parents and in-laws. And they can't hire those of an elected colleague. Free tickets and admission to events have been scaled back, and gifts from people or companies doing business with the city have been restricted. The new law provides greater safeguards against undue influence by lobbyists. And the financial disclosure rules will cover an additional 430 employees, including the city's lawyers.

The revisions were a long time in coming -- their approval coincides with an ongoing federal investigation of the hiring policies of the City Council. Nevertheless, they are essential to strengthen public confidence in city government.

But to be effective, an ethics code has to be enforced. To that end, Mayor Martin O'Malley is going beyond the Board of Ethics, whose oversight includes subpoena power. He has proposed establishing an Office of Inspector General to uncover waste, fraud and corruption in municipal government.

Over the next month or so, City Solicitor Ralph Tyler will decide how best to configure the position. To succeed, an inspector general's office can't be a one-man show. At the very least, it will need investigators if it is going to do more than simply react to complaints. Recognizing the city's tight finances, City Hall should determine if the work of such an office could help defray its costs. At the city housing department, a federally funded inspector general's unit operates with 14 employees, evenly divided between inspectors and auditors. Their work has uncovered a bribery scheme, check forgeries and thefts, has led to criminal convictions, and has resulted in $1.8 million in savings since 1997.

But as important as an inspector general's staff is the ability to act independently, free from any political consideration. Mr. Tyler has described the proposed office as an independent agency "with the right" to refer cases for criminal prosecutions. So it must be: independent and transparent. Then an inspector general's office would complement Mr. O'Malley's push for accountability in government and give city taxpayers assurances that they are getting their money's worth from City Hall.

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