Why are Prince George's County Council members blocking ethics reform?

Friday, February 4, 2011

IT'S HARD TO THINK of a locality more ripe for ethical reform than Prince George's County. It's not just that the former county executive faces federal corruption charges; that his wife, who is also accused of federal crimes, is a sitting County Council member best known for stuffing $80,000 in her bra to escape its detection by FBI agents; that a current state senator faces trial on bribery charges; that a former schools superintendent is serving a prison term for taking cash kickbacks; that elected officials in the recent past used their county-issued credit cards to rack up personal expenses; or that cadets in the county police academy were suspected of cheating en masse.

Equally concerning is what's whispered and rumored but not public - not yet anyway. Much of that involves the pay-to-play culture that has been more or less the norm, whereby developers and others with proposals pending before the county are routinely subjected to shakedowns - either for "donations," often to an elected official's favorite constituent groups, or "concessions," such as agreeing to hire particular well-connected individuals. In a lawsuit filed against the county last fall, one developer describes running just such a gantlet of county officials with their palms out. All this drives away exactly the sort of high-end commercial development that the county so desperately wants and needs.

The new county executive, Rushern L. Baker III, took office promising a package of reforms to clean up the ethics cesspool. Two of these measures require state legislative action and are now before the General Assembly in Annapolis. Amazingly, they have run into a wall of opposition from the County Council.

We say "amazingly" in part because the newly sworn council members - with the glaring exception of Leslie Johnson, from whose now-notorious undergarments the FBI extracted $80,000 - are actually a major improvement on their predecessors. Most of the worst ethical offenders on the previous council are gone, thanks to term limits. The new council includes several bright lights of unquestioned personal integrity.

Still, the new council is fighting Mr. Baker's ethical reforms in the name of its own precious prerogatives - exactly the prerogatives that helped saddle the county with the abysmal regional and national image it suffers from today.

One of Mr. Baker's proposals would end the insidious practice whereby individual council members can halt proposed development projects in their districts at the 11th hour, extract unspecified concessions and then be assured that the full council will rubber-stamp the outcome. This procedure has been an open invitation for abuse and corruption.

Not only that, but it is virtually unheard of in other local governments in Maryland, where the policy is to leave the details of development projects - curbs, gutters, building materials and the like - to planning boards and planning professionals. This is wise policy, precisely so that politically inspired mischief by elected officials, and the potential for abuse, are minimized.

Council members are also trying to block Mr. Baker's proposal to ban them from voting on land-use projects involving developers who have contributed money to the council member through a multi-candidate list known as a "slate." (They're already banned from taking developers' campaign money directly.)

Council members, who are much better at identifying ethical reforms they oppose than ones they support, argue that they shouldn't have to pay for the sins of their predecessors. They say that the individual vetoes they wield over development projects in their own districts enable them to be accountable to their constituents and that banning developers' campaign cash somehow isn't fair.

But these arguments don't wash, and their effect would be to perpetuate a system uniquely ripe for abuse. If anything, Mr. Baker's reforms do not go far enough - a topic we'll return to in future editorials.

The truth is that Prince George's recent ethics record is so horrendous - and the resulting failures of economic development have inflicted such long-term damage - that radical surgery is required. Prince George's needs to go the extra mile to prove, most of all to its residents, that it's cleaning up its act. And yes, it needs to go further than its neighbors. If the council blocks Mr. Baker's reforms, it will have itself to blame for the county's continued second-class status and subpar economic performance.

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