City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's proposal to tighten the city's ethics laws is an important step in the right direction and is badly needed in the wake of the criminal conviction of Mayor Sheila Dixon and her decision to resign. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's focus on the city ethics board is crucial because it has become clear that the body as it currently exists is insufficiently independent from the mayor and is unable to render judgments on a mayor's conduct that the people can trust. One need look no further than the fact that the ethics board took no action whatsoever against Mayor Dixon for any of her questionable conduct, dating from her efforts to steer business to her sister's company through the theft of gift cards meant for the city's poor.
The core of Ms. Rawlings-Blake's proposed reform is to reduce the mayor's influence over the board. Currently, the mayor serves on the board, as does the city solicitor, who is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the mayor. The other three members are direct mayoral appointees. Even if all five had the wisdom of Solomon, the public couldn't possibly trust that they would be fully impartial. The proposed reform would still allow the mayor to appoint three members of the board. The other two would come from the comptroller and the City Council president. The proposal would also prohibit lobbyists and those who work for any branch of state or local government from serving. Finally, terms on the board would be staggered so that a new mayor could not instantly take control of the body.
Along with other reforms, such as expanded ethics education for city employees and appointees, Ms. Rawlings-Blake's proposal represents a major improvement over the status quo and is noteworthy considering how rare it is for a mayor to support anything that restricts her authority.
But it is fair to question why the mayor - or any one person - would still get to name a majority of the board. If a mayor's appointees voted as a bloc, they could still prevent any action from being taken in even the most egregious cases of ethics violations - without the public knowing a thing about it.
The city ethics code specifies that its investigations and hearings on complaints are confidential. Their mere existence can only be revealed if the board refers the matter for criminal prosecution or finds that a violation has occurred. If the appointees of the comptroller and council president disagreed with the majority, they would be powerless to do anything about it - even to inform the public of the dispute. The staggering of terms would help, but considering that owing to the lack of term limits, Baltimore mayors (current circumstances notwithstanding) tend to stay in office for a long time, it may not offer much guarantee of independence.
The structure Ms. Rawlings-Blake proposes mirrors that of the state ethics board, a majority of which is appointed by the governor. The confidentiality requirements the state board follows are the same as those for the city. The state board has not been so toothless as its city counterpart, but that doesn't mean the potential for conflicts doesn't also exist there.
Rather than keeping a majority of the board under control of the mayor, it would be better to increase the number of nominees from the comptroller and council president. It's also worth considering making the state's attorney, the only other citywide elected official, part of the process. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's efforts to put ethics reform at the top of her agenda are welcome, but given the level of mistrust caused by Ms. Dixon's failings, they could go farther.
Ethics originates within one's quality of character. You can "mandate" ethics in government on paper, but you really can't change the color of a horse.
The best way to have effective ethics in government is via an informed voter who'll vote for an individual who does have quality of character (or against candidates who don't).
Ms. Rawlings-Blake is young, smart and well educated, and expectations are low. She has a real shot to make some improvements in this area, and in others as well. I am rooting for her.