SO NOW this local government leader has resigned from high office, guilty of cocaine possession and finally able to understand how public trust was betrayed. "I think I am to be held, as a public official, to a higher standard," he said before his day of judicial reckoning, "and I think part of being held to a higher standard . . . is to forfeit my office at an appropriate time." True -- and the man's departure from office puts the government in a stronger position as it continues the grueling struggles to wipe out drugs and drug-related violence. So ends 15 years of public service, brought to a conclusion by an undercover operation and cocaine use that a federal prosecutor said began in 1979. The guilty public official in this case is James M. Herl, who was deposed as chairman of the Prince George's County Council and who resigned as a council member effective May 31.

The magistrate who sentenced Mr. Herl chided him for "continuing to use drugs" privately "while championing the fight against drugs" in public. Mr. Herl's admission of guilt was part of a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney's Office in which prosecutors agreed not to recommend jail time and Mr. Herl agreed to pay a fine of up to $5,000. He also has been placed on three years' probation and ordered to perform 240 hours of community service. All of this is for one misdemeanor count. Mr. Herl's attorney noted that his client "has not blamed this on anyone else. He has never said he was tricked by the police department. . . . He was tricked by one person, and that's himself."

Whatever parallels and differences there may be between this case and that of Mayor Barry, a legal finding of guilt on a drug charge or drug-related charges on the part of a public official is not something to be excused or even minimized. Mr. Herl's behavior has been found by the magistrate to have been repugnant as well as hypocritical -- and it's hard to see how the people Mr. Herl was serving should find it anything less.