Pushing the reset button in P.G.

Our view: New county executive's first priority must be restoring public trust in government

December 07, 2010

Incoming Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III lost no time this week in making good on his pledge to clean house in a county government widely perceived as riddled by corruption and still reeling from the arrests last month of former county executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife on charges of evidence tampering and destruction of evidence. Within hours of his swearing-in on Monday, Mr. Baker fired county Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton, three of whose officers are charged in the federal corruption probe linked to the Johnsons. He also dismissed Fire and EMS Chief Eugene A. Jones and announced a slew of interim appointments to take over county departments while the search proceeds for permanent agency heads.

At his inauguration, Mr. Baker said the election had given officials a chance to "get it right" for county residents dismayed by longstanding allegations of government corruption and a "pay-to-play" culture in which developers and others dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and graft to get projects approved. Having run on a reformist platform, he's got a mandate to clean house as well as to fulfill promises to make county government more efficient and to devote more resources to issues residents care about, such as public safety and education, at a time when counties across the region are cutting back due to the recession.

But if his social and quality-of-life initiatives are to have a chance of succeeding, Mr. Baker is going to have to do more than simply balance the county's $2.6 billion budget and promote its potential for development. He is going to have to tackle head-on the perception of ethical laxity and mediocrity that led to residents' loss of faith in their local officials and find a way to rebuild public trust in a system that many have written off as all but irredeemable.

In that regard, he could take a cue from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took over after former Mayor Sheila Dixon was forced to step down following her theft conviction. Ms. Rawlings-Blake began her tenure promising to make government more transparent and accountable, and it has remained a priority of her administration. Among her first actions was to introduce a package of ethics reforms and, while more could still be done, that sent a powerful message. Letting the light in is essential for good government, and Mr. Baker must embrace it as well. So long as the shadow of sleaze and dishonesty dog perceptions of the county's operations, they will remain a fatal distraction from anything else he might accomplish.

Restoring confidence in government's integrity will be a challenge given that the federal corruption probe continues, and prosecutors say that the nearly dozen arrests announced so far are just the tip of the iceberg. The newly elected county council will face its first big test almost immediately in the case of Leslie Johnson, Mr. Johnson's wife, who was elected to the body in November just weeks before she and her husband were arrested, and who was also sworn in Monday despite pleas from some other members that she step aside.

Although Mrs. Johnson is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, her mere presence on the new council raises renewed questions about lapses in that body's past oversight and watchdog roles and casts a long shadow over its operations that will be difficult to dispel so long as the charges against her remained unresolved. With such a potent symbol of the county's troubled ethical history still occupying one of its top elected positions, Mr. Baker will need all his powers of persuasion, diplomacy and tact to convince residents that the fresh start they have been waiting for so long has finally arrived.

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