Baby steps on public ethics

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's announcement last week that Baltimore would put public officials' financial disclosure statements online was both a welcome step forward and a sign of just how far Maryland has to go to be truly transparent. The city's forms — which include things such as officials' outside employment, real estate holdings and investments — may soon be available on the web, but those who want to look at them will first have to go to City Hall, verify their identity and register for access. That's hardly in keeping with the goal of providing residents with the information they need to determine whether a government official has a potential conflict of interest.

The registration requirement is in keeping with a long standing city law that says those seeking to review or copy the disclosure forms must provide their names and home addresses so that any official who requests it can be notified when his or her forms have been seen and by whom. That provision is modeled after a state law that has been in effect since 1979. The ostensible reason for it is lost to the ages, but it has proved particularly durable. An effort by the city's ethics commission to eliminate it a decade ago was quashed by the City Council, and a similar push by some state lawmakers died in 2012.

Quite simply, elected officials appear to have little interest in making it easier for their potential opponents to review their forms, and they want to known when it happens. The fact that these requirements have a chilling effect on the public's ability to inspect what are, by law, public records seems not to factor into the discussion.

A spokesman for Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she would not object to seeing the requirement removed from the city's law. She should go a step further and introduce legislation to that effect.

But the state level is where more action is really needed. State financial disclosure forms are generally filed electronically, but to view them, members of the public have to go to Annapolis, provide ID and read them off of a computer, which automatically notifies officials when their forms have been read. That is to say, public notice of an official's potential conflicts could hardly be more inconvenient to achieve, but officials' notification that someone is scrutinizing their files happens at the speed of light.

A 2012 law was partially addressed that, at least as far as the General Assembly is concerned, by requiring the Department of Legislative Services to post a more limited disclosure form from lawmakers online, starting last year. The information is there but not easy to find. There are no links to it from the main pages of the General Assembly or DLS websites, and a Google search doesn't turn it up.

Legislators said in 2012 that they were worried about harassment or identity theft if too much of their financial information was easily accessible. But other states have managed it without incident. The real risk — and the one that has been borne out too often by experience — is that without the possibility of true scrutiny, some officials will act in ways that put their interest ahead of the public's. We commend the mayor for the step she has taken, but we urge her and officials across the state to make sure it isn't the last.

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