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Minnich: Ethics gets lots of word play at all levels of government

Right now, across all levels of our government — local, state, federal — the sober ideals of democracy are being bandied around on the same stage as the comedy of what is called political ethics.

A contradiction of terms, some might say.

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The impeachment of President Donald Trump is about that, and so are the debates about adopting codes of ethics in county and city government. But more specifically, it is about us, as a people; about what we value and believe and are willing to stand up for in the actions of elected officials.

The ideal of American government is that we choose everyday people to share a balance of power to represent the interests of the total constituency, regardless of party affiliation.

In short, the whole system of our democracy relies on trust, honor, and accountability. That’s the front porch portrayal of American democracy.

The back-room reality is darker. Without all that, particularly the accountability, we would have a self-perpetuating, self-serving tyranny.

In the late hours of Tuesday’s debate on rules about impeachment trial witnesses, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen tried to break through the logjams of partisanship. He suggested leaving it to the chief justice of the Supreme Court to decide if additional subpoenas should be issued after opening arguments were heard. The idea was soundly rejected by the Republican leadership.

Ethics gets lip service. All the moral outrage is nothing but brute force politics, particularly by the apologists for Trump.

The state’s ethics standards have not been adopted by Carroll County or Westminster governments — along with two other subdivisions — mostly over semantics, and partly because conservative interests in particular do not want just everyone to know how our leaders earn their money. Sources, connections and implications might be difficult to explain when there are more important things to do, such as ensure the continuation of the commerce and keeping a lid on using taxation to benefit those who need more than they contribute to the honey pot.

Carroll County has long supported representatives to the state legislature who make money in real estate and development and stand against laws that would curtail damage to the environment.

Still, if you removed from state offices all the lawyers, realtors, developers, contractors, and others affected by the decisions of the legislature each year, there would be no one left to make the laws or enforce them.

Maryland is led by a popular and generally agreeable Republican governor who has connections to a real estate business which has thrived in the time he has been in office. A mere coincidence, perhaps, but unseemly. He just decided to return $65,000 in campaign donations that were questionable.

Gov. Hogan has done a respectable job with bipartisan respect.

When we elect real citizens to govern, we have to be able to trust them to serve all of us, in bipartisan compromises.

Money and power are a factor in how hard our system’s guardians work at maintaining high ethical standards. It’s the old saw about the Golden Rule: Those with the gold make the rules.

Some have apparently given up on being governed well. There will be those in and on the fringes to government power to take advantage of public apathy.

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The late Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Berry was convicted of all kinds of chicanery, from drug buys to graft and immoral practices, prosecuted and drummed out of office, but the citizens of the city voted him back in because, well, they liked him.

Trump became president because he said things and showed public disdain for standards in a way that many relate to and even admire.

But there will always be those among us with these nagging ideals of what characteristics we should expect from those who weigh the consequences of their actions without regard to expanding their own wealth or personal base of power.

Dean Minnich retired from a career in journalism and served two terms as a county commissioner. His column appears on Thursdays. His email address is dminnichwestm@gmail.com.

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