Setting an ethical example

Our view

April 23, 2010

The ethics measures signed into law Wednesday by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake may not be as "sweeping" as the mayor claims, but they are an important step forward. Not least of all because they should help restore public trust in City Hall, something Ms. Rawlings-Blake had pledged to make a top priority.

Baltimoreans will long remember that the ethics board found no fault with the actions of former Mayor Sheila Dixon up to and including the moment she was criminally indicted. Perhaps it was only a coincidence that Ms. Dixon had appointed all members of the board, but it certainly did nothing to assuage concerns that their actions (or inactions) were guided by the mayor.

Under the new law, the mayor still appoints a majority of the five-member board, but now the council president and city comptroller have the authority to appoint one member each. The law also bans city, county and state workers (aside from those employed in higher education) and lobbyists of all stripes from serving. Most importantly, the terms are staggered so that an incoming mayor will not have the authority to create a completely new slate.

The mayor's appointees must also include at least two lawyers, a change that should add badly needed expertise to the group. Members of the board will choose their own leader, and that modification should encourage independence.

A separate law signed Wednesday more clearly sharpens the definition of who is considered to be doing business with the city. It was prompted by Ms. Dixon's failure to identify Ronald H. Lipscomb — a developer with whom she had a personal relationship and who lavished numerous gifts upon her — as someone with a financial stake in city government.

We would like to see the mayor go further and push to make government more transparent — posting contracts online, for instance — and accountable where possible. But it's fair to say that she's already demonstrated an appropriate sensitivity to ethics. The new law even requires the board to make recommendations for ways to improve City Hall ethics annually.

Recent actions in Annapolis are less impressive. Lawmakers adjourned earlier this month with little accomplished in this arena, declining to even approve a law requiring committee votes to be posted online. That one of their most influential members, Senate Budget & Taxation Chairman Ulysses S. Currie, remains under investigation by federal authorities for possible misconduct in office, seemed to go unnoticed by the majority.

Just this week, the state elections board requested an investigation into possible misuse of campaign donations by Senator Currie. He is alleged to have spent more than $50,000 for such purposes as his legal defense, an eye exam and a golf course membership. Yet if there is a groundswell of concern by ruling Democrats over Senator Currie's actions — or even a thought that perhaps he should step down, at least temporarily, from leadership — it is well hidden within the State House.

Robert A. Rohrbaugh, the outgoing state prosecutor whose case against Ms. Dixon lead to her resignation, has publicly suggested that his office has neither the funding nor the proper statutes to fight corruption in this state. These are allegations that bear closer scrutiny.

Maryland's not-too-distant past includes too many examples of wayward elected officials, from governors to county executives, committee chairmen and other public servants, who have faced criminal prosecution to ever be comfortable with the ethics status quo.

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