The lay of the land on conflicts of interest


CONFLICTS OF interest are a reality of modern life. They have to be acknowledged and dealt with. But imagined conflicts shouldn't paralyze governments, businesses or other institutions.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens' decision to review all major subdivision approvals and waivers does not get at the heart of the conflict-of-interest problem that has arisen over the county's development approval process. It does, however, threaten to overwhelm her with work that requires a technical background she doesn't possess.

Her decision to review planning approvals stemmed from news reports about Mark Wedemeyer, an administrator with Planning and Code Enforcement. He occupies a position in which he could review plans by DFI Inc., a civil engineering and land planning firm his father-in-law owns.

Although potential for mischief existed, the county ethics commission did not find any. In a December ruling, the commission said that if Mr. Wedemeyer oversaw reviews of DFI projects, an appearance of impropriety would exist. The department had one of Mr. Wedemeyer's subordinates review DFI submissions instead. The commission said it would have preferred for another team to review the plans, but didn't recommend that the decision be overturned.

Troubling appearances

When it comes to the public's business, appearances can be nearly as troublesome as an actual conflict. If citizens believe that local government officials have two standards -- one for family, friends and business partners and another for the rest of the population -- the government loses authority.

Having Ms. Owens oversee the approval process doesn't protect future conflicts. It just adds another layer to the process.

Ensuring that Mr. Wedemeyer doesn't oversee the review of DFI submissions should be sufficient. If in future instances these measures are not protecting the public's interests, they can be reviewed and strengthened.

Some of the conflict-of-interest charges that have been tossed about represent the worst in guilt by association.

Concept is misunderstood

In the recent controversy over DFI, county Planning Director Steven Cover had his professional integrity questioned because 13 years ago he worked for the firm. Weems Duvall, president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, an activist group, believes Mr. Cover favors his former employers and would exclude him from all future reviews of DFI projects. Linking Mr. Cover with DFI and accusing him of having a conflict of interest demonstrates how poorly the concept is understood.

For Mr. Cover to have a conflict, he would have to have a current interest in DFI. Barring that, Mr. Cover cannot derive any benefit from favorable decisions affecting DFI any more than any other civil engineering firm.

Yes, he may have some residual allegiance to his former employer, but Mr. Cover is also a competent professional. Just as Yankees pitcher David Wells never served up easy pitches when he faced his former Orioles teammates, no one has been able to demonstrate that Mr. Cover reviews DFI projects differently from others.

Unless evidence surfaces that Mr. Cover, or for that matter, Mr. Wedemeyer, play favorites in the process, we have to assume they are executing their jobs properly.

Having relatives in the development business or being a former employee of an architectural, engineering or land planning firm should not prevent working for the county.

Need for public disclosure

I am not so naive to believe that everyone presented with conflicts of interest makes the right choice. Publicly disclosing conflicts and recusing one's self are the best ways to handle such complexities. The airing of these situations allows everyone to decide for himself whether the conflict is real.

The other reality is that Anne Arundel is not overrun with development because planners with conflicts of interest are blithely granting waivers.

Development would occur without the waivers. In many cases, the waivers represent a trade-off -- more units in exchange for preserving open space or common-sense solutions to storm-water management rules. All county residents benefit from these decisions.

Having Ms. Owens review every major subdivision will not halt development. Zoning hearings and subdivision reviews were not intended as mechanisms to prevent development. They are in place to ensure that developers follow the requirements to ensure that construction enhances communities rather than detracts from them.

Adhering to the highest ethical standards is an excellent goal in its own right. Conspiracy theorists who believe that conflicts in the development approval process are driving construction in this county couldn't be more wrong.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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