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Baltimore County gets ethical

Ask elected officials to name their top 10 concerns these days, and ethics probably doesn't crack the list. Budget shortfalls, jobs, schools, public safety, taxes, development, employee pensions and even trash collection are far more likely to make the cut.

That's why Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz deserves a shout-out for recognizing a problem and taking on the thankless task of doing something about it. The ethics reform bill that the County Council is scheduled to receive Monday appears to be a serious, if belated, effort to raise the behavioral standards in Towson.

That it addresses the recent brouhaha involving Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver and his decision to take a state job — completely ignoring the county charter's clear prohibition on such an arrangement — is only a small piece of what the legislation seeks to accomplish. Mr. Oliver has since pledged to resign from his post at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, and the only remaining question would seem to be what would happen if he hadn't (or doesn't), as the charter offered no enforcement mechanism.

The proposed legislation clears that up, but it also would install other important reforms. They include permanently barring former county workers from lobbying on matters on which they worked and banning current employees for accepting gifts such as Ravens or Orioles tickets from people who do business with the county.

The measure would also make it easier for county residents to check up on their elected officials and their outside employment. Ethics disclosure forms would be posted online — not just for County Council members but for other top county officials, including department heads and members of the planning and appeals boards.

Are these changes revolutionary? Not really, or at least they shouldn't be. But they do represent the kinds of common sense restrictions that Maryland's elected leaders always seem reluctant to embrace unless a political howitzer is aimed at their collective heads.

That's not just their fault. Maryland voters are frequently all too willing to forgive and forget ethical lapses as well. Councilman Oliver was reelected to office last year after pleading guilty to pocketing $2,300 in campaign donations the year before.

Indeed, what makes the effort commendable is that it's likely Mr. Kamenetz had plenty of incentive to retain the status quo. No doubt there are many in county government employ who stand to lose income from these restrictions — county engineers or building code inspectors who soon won't be able to jump ship and work for developers on behalf of the projects they formerly regulated. The new rules are unlikely to thrill them — or some council members.

But as Mr. Kamenetz noted in the accompanying executive order he signed Wednesday, the residents of Baltimore County "deserve a government that attains the highest standards of professional integrity and ethical conduct." That requires more than lofty language; it demands the kind of reporting requirements and enforcement mechanisms the legislation is expected to contain.

Perhaps one of the most important elements is a recognition — finally — that we live in a digital age and that such information should be readily accessible online and not tucked away in some filing cabinet in the back of a hidden office. It's one thing to tout transparency in government; it's quite another to apply 21st century information technology standards.

Not only will disclosure forms be available on the Internet, but Mr. Kamenetz has called for "web-based training" to teach county employees how to meet the new requirements. That strongly suggests the county executive is engaged in more than some half-hearted effort to please newspaper editorial writers, Common Cause and the rest of the good government crowd.

Should this be the final word on ethics in government? Almost certainly not. But it appears to set some high standards (the lifetime ban on lobbying and Internet-based reporting, to name two) that other jurisdictions ought to emulate.

One can only hope that someone is paying attention in Annapolis. No matter what the jury's conclusion in this week's federal bribery trial of Sen. Ulysses S. Currie — the former Senate Budget and Taxation chairman who failed to report a quarter-million dollars in payments from Shoppers Food Warehouse while he lobbied on the grocery chain's behalf — it's clear that the General Assembly could use a stiff dose of ethics reform and tougher disclosure rules as well.

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