Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is proposing broad changes in the way the city handles ethics, an issue that came to the forefront during the corruption investigation that ultimately led to Mayor Sheila Dixon's resignation.
The proposed changes, detailed in a bill slated to be introduced at Monday's council meeting, would "strengthen public trust" in city government, said Rawlings-Blake, who will take over as mayor Feb. 4.
"We're trying to do as much as we can to encourage impartiality," she said. "In reality and in perception, the means by which the appointee [is nominated to a board] means something to the public. I can't imagine that not weighing into decision-making."
Rawlings-Blake stopped short of saying that the measure was prompted by Dixon's recent guilty plea to perjury for failing to disclose gifts from a developer on her city ethics forms.
But her bill would reduce the mayor's influence over the Baltimore Board of Ethics, whose five members are now appointed by the mayor or by City Hall staff who serve at the chief executive's will. The board had declined several years ago to pursue allegations that Dixon had used her influence to direct city contracts to a company that hired her sister.
Rawlings-Blake's proposal would also stagger board members' five-year terms, ending the current system in which a new mayor essentially can name an entirely new board.
It also would require the board to file an annual report of its activities and make ethics training mandatory for all city board members. High-ranking city officials, including the mayor and council members, currently are required to complete the training. Under the plan, the comptroller and council president would each appoint one ethics board member and the mayor would nominate the other three.
Ethics advocates lauded the changes, which will make the city board more closely resemble the state's ethics commission, but questioned whether they would have a real effect.
Not 'going far enough'
"I think that's certainly an improvement, but I don't think they're going far enough," said Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics.
Since three of the five members - a majority - would be mayoral appointees, the mayor still would effectively control the board, he said.
"How can you be objective if your self-interest lies with the person you have to judge?" he said. "It's not the mayor's ethics; it's the city's ethics."
Since the ethics board's inception in 1963, it has been composed of the mayor or a designee; the city solicitor - who serves at the mayor's will - or a designee; and three mayoral appointees.
Dana P. Moore, a senior attorney at Venable LLC, currently chairs the board. She was appointed by Dixon, who had previously offered her a job as her chief of staff. Other members include labor commissioner Deborah Moore-Carter and Alexander Chambers, a City College teacher who is the board's lone Republican. Under city law, one member of the board must belong to the minority party.
Deputy City Solicitor Donald Huskey, who is also the city's acting inspector general, is the city solicitor's designee. A fifth seat has been vacant for at least two years.
In recent months, the board has examined a range of topics, from the way officials solicited gifts for the Baltimore City Foundation, the subject of a Baltimore Sun investigation, to possible changes in the way city officials disclose gifts, a central issue in Dixon's corruption trial.
Several calls to Moore seeking comment were not returned. Under current law, the board members' terms effectively expire at the end of Dixon's time in office.
Ethics advocates praised Rawlings-Blake's proposal to stagger board members' terms, with one member's term expiring each year.
"That would prevent an incoming mayor from reconforming the commission to his or her will," said Julian L. Lapides, who sits on the state ethics commission and is a former city ethics board member.
The new system would also ensure a mix of seasoned pros and fresh ideas, said Suzanne Fox, a former executive director of the state commission.
The proposed law would also bar any Maryland lobbyist or any government workers - state, county or municipal - from serving on the board.
In addition, members of various city boards, including the zoning and finance boards, would be required to undergo the city's two-hour ethics training.
Education as the answer
Fox said she believes education can prevent the majority of ethical lapses.
"When people know what is expected of them and why the laws came to be, there are not as many violations," she said. In the state, "as we increased the amount of education, we had a decrease in the amount of disciplinary actions, but an increase in the number of questions that came to us."
The proposal would require the board to draft an annual report of its activities, in addition to reports recommending legislation, Rawlings-Blake said, giving them the power to "make recommendations to strengthen and enhance the city's ethics laws."
Ultimately, the success of the board will be measured by the actions of the people it governs, advocates said.
"The most important thing is creating a culture where ethics are important and are paid attention to," said Ryan O'Donnell, director of Common Cause Maryland, a political watchdog group.
Too many ethics boards "play footsie with the people they have to review," said Guy, the UB professor. Although the work can be "painful" and "embarrassing, " an ethics board must be objective, he said.