Prince George's makes a start on ethics repair

Monday, February 28, 2011; 8:03 PM

A PACKAGE OF ETHICS reform bills for Prince George's County is making its way through Maryland's legislature. The bills, proposed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), have been watered down at the insistence of members of the County Council. Yet some positive features remain, and they may start to repair the county's reputation for corruption.

As part of his package, Mr. Baker had proposed scrapping the bizarre system that allows council members to halt shopping centers, office buildings and other development projects in their districts for no reason or any reason at all. That system, unknown in most of the state, has been used to shake down developers for concessions that have run the gamut from sordid to salutary. Some developers have had to cough up cash contributions for who-knows-what "worthy" causes; others have been asked to hire politically connected "consultants"; others, to pay for better drainage or landscaping on their projects.

Mr. Baker was right to oppose this practice. Unfortunately, the council, seeing his proposal as a power grab, insisted on keeping it alive. Under compromise legislation, which remains a work in progress, council members would be able to halt a project for up to 205 days as they seek concessions, which are too broadly defined. We suppose that's better than holding things up for more than a year, as the council wanted, or indefinitely, as has been the case; still, it's a long way from a real fix.

Mr. Baker and the council are still dickering over a gigantic loophole in campaign finance rules that allows council members to vote on projects after accepting donations from developers who contribute to affiliated lists of candidates known as slates. In the face of pushback from the council, Mr. Baker seems to have decided against going to the mat to bar such contributions in most instances. However, he is insisting on stringent disclosure rules.

Some state lawmakers see the bills as mainly cosmetic. Even Mr. Baker's allies seem weary of the exercise, believing he has spent too much time and political capital on ethics reform. One official noted that the issue doesn't excite voters.

Maybe not. But what does seem to excite, and infuriate, citizens is the county's pitiable image, which became a national story with the arrests of Jack B. Johnson, then county executive, and his wife, Leslie, last fall. For anyone who cared to notice, the problems in Prince George's were plain long before the FBI knocked at Mr. Johnson's door.

If Mr. Baker and the council want to make Prince Georgians proud of their county again, and encourage quality development that's been scared off by sleaze, they need to remove the stain on the county's name. Eethics reform is a crucial step in that direction.

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