Common sense not so common [Editorial]

In dismissing an Aberdeen Ethics Commission ruling against Mayor Mike Bennett, Harford County Circuit Court Judge Stephen M. Waldron called the ruling that the mayor had acted improperly when he visited Augusta, Ga., in 2011 to promote the IronBirds minor league ball team "inconsistent with common sense."

It's hard to imagine a court opinion that more clearly cuts to the heart of the matter, and has more meaning for anyone who was alive and paying even tangential attention to professional sports in Maryland between 1983 and 1996. It was in 1983 that the Colts left Baltimore to play football in Indianapolis and it wasn't until 1996 that the Ravens started playing on the gridiron at the old Memorial Stadium.

During the intervening 13 years, the matter of securing an NFL football team to play in Baltimore was at least as big an issue in Maryland politics as tax rates or traffic congestion. Not pursuing NFL teams that could have ended up calling Baltimore home could not only have been seen as unethical, but also as a sure way to lose votes.

In 2011, long after Aberdeen under a previous administration had helped finance Ripken Stadium as a way of attracting the New York-Penn League IronBirds to the city, Mayor Bennett was enlisted by the Ripken organization to travel to Augusta, at the expense of the ballclub, to talk in that city about the benefits of having a minor league team and a first rate stadium.

At the time, the Ripken organization was lobbying Augusta to build a new stadium for its minor league team.

Bennett went, then when he ran for re-election, he was challenged for the job of mayor by Patrick McGrady, a Campaign for Liberty Republican with a take-no-prisoners campaign style. McGrady raised the trip as a campaign issue, but Bennett was re-elected, albeit by a slim margin. McGrady sought the Ethics Commission review of the case, and the commission sided with McGrady.

In his decision to overturn the Ethics Commission ruling, Waldron went so far as to say McGrady "abandoned the complaint and lost all interest once his opportunity vanished to derive any further political benefit from the same."

The judge's conclusion was that while the trip may have been "for the benefit of Ripken Baseball, it was the mayor's objective and agenda to help Aberdeen derivatively by helping Ripken Baseball. Such an effort in the goal of economic development lies squarely in the role of a mayor to help the economic growth of his city."

Moreover, he made reference to the appropriate judges of such relationships between elected officials and private organizations like professional sports teams when he said the appropriate place for such issues to be decided is at the ballot box.

As that already had been done, and secure in the knowledge, derived from post-Colts era politics in Maryland that a level of engagement between elected officials and professional sports teams is not only OK, but expected, the Aberdeen Ethics Commission should have politely considered Mr. McGrady's complaint and then told him to go make political hay elsewhere.

By acting as it did, the members of the Aberdeen Ethics Commission – Maria Fothergill, Myra Fender, Marian de Rosset and Jesse J. Shanks - did exactly what it is supposed to prevent other public bodies from doing, namely using the public authority entrusted to them to advance an agenda.

In its own opinion on the matter, the commission concluded that Bennett had made no willful attempt to breach ethics, and characterized what it called violations as "imprudent actions."

Perhaps the harshness of the commission's concluding that "imprudent actions" constitute unethical behavior is part of the reason the judge found the commission's reprimand lacking in common sense.

Simply put, this was a goofy matter that went way too far, wasting court and other time as well as wrongly smearing Bennett. Thankfully, Judge Baldwin put an end to this nonsense perpetuated solely by the lack of common sense used by members of the Aberdeen Ethics Commission.

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