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Ethics and election reform in Baltimore Co.

Ethics and election reform in Baltimore Co.
Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. listens as county residents speak about their top priorities for the county budget in a town hall meeting at Loch Raven High School on Jan. 10. (Libby Solomon / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

It would be nice to assume the county that produced Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson of the 1960s and their subsequent high-profile public corruption prosecutions in the 1970s would already be a leader in ethics and election reform four decades later — at least within Maryland or perhaps by Greater Baltimore Metropolitan Area standards. But nobody has ever accused Baltimore County of being way ahead in the good or even “open” government curve. Yet, suddenly, all that may be changing.

This past week, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. announced two initiatives that could go a long way toward assuring Baltimore County residents that their local government is neither corrupt nor beholden to special interests. One proposal would give the county authority to create a voluntary public financing system similar the one already in place in Howard County (and Montgomery County, and on the way in Baltimore City). Candidates for public office would have the option of having their campaigns at least partly financed by public money and thus would not have to go hat-in-hand to major donors (and in the case of county government, that almost always translates to deep-pocketed developers).

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The other would establish an Office of Ethics and Accountability that would have the authority — on an independent basis — to investigate allegations of fraud, abuse and corruption. It would be similar to inspector general positions that can be found in other federal and state government agencies and not unlike the IG proposal introduced last year by County Councilman David Marks. The conviction of a former Baltimore County’s schools superintendent on four perjury counts last year related to a no-bid training contract still has many in the county seat shaking their heads.

What’s worth noting here is not simply that these are both great ideas (although the devil can be in the still-unresolved details) but that these measures are finally going to get serious consideration in Baltimore County. That’s not to suggest that the county is wallowing in more Dallas Dance cases (or even more like Robert Barrett, the other high-ranking school and former county official convicted last year of wrongdoing), it’s more that too many major decisions coming out of Towson have been tainted by the appearance of impropriety. Whether it’s a land sale, a rezoning or public financing for Towson Row redevelopment, there always seem to be public doubts and uncertainty. Was this decision done for the personal benefit of an elected or appointed official?

And while it’s all very well to have an investigator with both the budget and the authority to identify wrongdoing and punish those responsible, there’s a more basic problem as well: What about the kind of legal bribery that campaign finance rules allow — the developer who spreads campaign donations to candidates like candy hearts to classmates on Valentine’s Day? Council members can claim they aren’t influenced by such choices, but see how many county voters believe them. That makes public financing of campaigns — even when it means the specter of tax dollars paying for some candidate’s tasteless and/or misleading TV ads — a truly valuable tool for promoting the public interest.

So how does Mr. Olszewski’s package measure up? We need to know more specifics, but there is plenty of reason to be hopeful. That a newly-elected county executive would even choose to make ethics and campaign finance reform among the first, and thus most important, initiatives of his term might be the best news of all. At minimum, it suggests he was paying attention during last year’s primary when the influence of developers became such a hot-button issue between his Democratic opponents, Councilwoman Vicki Almond and state Sen. Jim Brochin. It might even suggest this is a genuine priority.

As happened in Howard County, voters in Baltimore County will likely be asked first to amend the county charter to give the county authority to adopt public financing. Then it will be up to local officials to iron out the specifics like how many qualifying donations must be collected to be eligible for matching funds or the maximum a candidate can collect. But that’s fine, too. In the meantime, Baltimore County can watch as Howard and similar systems in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties (and soon Baltimore City), face the same issues and perhaps learn from their experience. The nice thing about the road to good government is that Baltimore County won’t have to go it alone.

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