Maryland's new leaders: Time to try transparency

Our view: Maryland’s incoming county leaders should commit to keeping voters better informed of what’s happening in local government

From Ellicott City to Annapolis, today marks a major turnover in the ranks of Maryland’s county executives, particularly in the Baltimore suburbs where two incumbents handed over their offices after losing lost re-election bids (a rarity in state politics). While the new executives’ circumstances differ from county to county, collectively they would be wise to follow a single philosophy: Keep voters informed of what’s going on, explain how and why decisions are made, and, above all else, be transparent.

That notion of transparency — of allowing people full access to information — has been something of a catch phrase for “outsiders” running for political office, but it is not always embraced once they are sworn in. Yet few Marylanders have more control over information such as how taxpayer dollars are collected and spent or how planning and zoning decisions are made than do people like newly sworn-in Baltimore County Executive John A. “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. As a county’s chief executive, he and his brethren (and they are mostly men this year, with notable exceptions in Frederick County’s Jan Gardner and Prince George’s Angela Alsobrooks) have more say over what people find out about the workings of local government than anyone else.

To his credit, Mr. Olszewski has touted a free flow of information as part of his “good government” campaign plank and pledged, among other things, to make it much easier for average Baltimore County residents to track the budget. He plans to hold budget hearings in the evenings when average people can attend and post more information on the county website, and he’s pushing for the County Council to move its work sessions to the evenings, too. He is not alone in this sentiment but is arguably the most outspoken on the topic. Calvin Ball in Howard and Steuart Pittman in Anne Arundel clearly also benefited from voter concerns about the process by which government made decisions under incumbents Allan Kittleman and Steve Schuh.

That’s not to suggest that secrecy was the dominant issue upon which elections turned in 2018. Concerns about development and developers in certain subdivisions, a desire to upgrade the quality of public schools as well as the unpopularity of the current occupant of the White House likely had a larger impact in most, if not all, of the local elections. Only one Republican, incumbent Harford executive Barry Glassman, won a big-county executive race in Maryland this year. But this isn’t just about party politics. There’s been a growing unease among voters in this state who wonder why, in the age of the internet where an extraordinary amount of information is but a click away, figuring out what your county executive or council member is up to remains so difficult.

Maryland has never been considered at the top ranks of “open” government. As recently as 2015, the state earned a “D” for government transparency and accountability from the Center for Public Integrity (although many others did even worse). But we live in a time of heightened distrust of government and of the press. The need for local government to put all its cards on the table, as it were, has never been greater.

That’s why after all the parties and hoopla are over and newly-elected officials have unpacked their boxes and adjusted their ergonomic chairs, one of their first initiatives ought to be an audit of local agencies, not just to examine their finances or functions (though both are worthy endeavors) but to ask the question: Are we as forthcoming with county residents as possible? We strongly suspect the answer, more often than not, will be “No.” That’s not necessarily because predecessors wanted to conduct business in secret but because transparency has simply not been a top priority in the past. In government, inertia generally holds sway.

When will that pothole in front of my house get fixed? How is school construction money being spent this year? Which county contractors donated money to local political campaigns? Where are violent crimes taking place? These are all reasonable questions that could easily be addressed through existing technology matched with a will to keep voters informed. We have seen too often what happens when local leaders presume to know what’s best and withhold information from their constituents (witness the awkward selection process for Baltimore City’s next police commissione) to not endorse Mr. Olszewski’s goal of running a local government that holds fewer secrets. We trust all the county executives — and council members and commissioners — will recognize the wisdom of that approach as well.

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