Halfway ethical in Towson

Is it possible to be too ethical? The Baltimore County Council seems to think so. Although they voted last week to adopt a number of important reforms proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — including a requirement that their financial disclosure statements be posted online — they balked at several provisions that would have set stricter standards to ensure their private interests don't conflict with the public interests they are supposed to safeguard. Voters should demand that the council members — who adopted these amendments 7-0 — explain why they should be allowed to do the things that the stricken provisions would have banned.

The first major amendment to the bill deals with cases when council members are required to recuse themselves from voting on matters that could present a conflict of interest. Mr. Kamenetz's bill included a section that set rules specifically for council members in addition to those that apply to other officials, but the council stripped them out. The rules that remain prohibit council members (or other public officials in the county) from participating in any matter in which they or a close relative have a financial stake, or from owning or acquiring an interest in an entity they regulate.

But the provisions the council removed recognized the need to look at a broader set of conduct. They would have banned council members from voting on matters that affected the interests of someone with whom they had a "close economic association" — that is, an employer, employee, business partner or corporation in which the council member owns at least 10 percent of the stock, or stock valued at $25,000, whichever is lesser. Taking this restriction out leaves open the possibility for an "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" kind of arrangement. The stricken rules would have also banned council members from benefiting from a "close economic association" with someone who is lobbying the council, or soliciting a loan from someone who would be affected by legislative action. Why in the world should such conduct be allowed?

Another section of Mr. Kamenetz's reforms restricts the ability of public officials, elected and otherwise, to represent a third party before the county government. The county executive wanted to ban officials from being paid for such advocacy, but the council limited that restriction to cases of "contingent compensation." That, apparently, would allow a member of the county council to advocate on behalf of his or her employer so long as that's not specifically what he or she was hired to do. But such an arrangement inevitably creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. Would we want, for example, a council member whose day job is to work for Comcast advocating on the company's behalf when the county decides on cable franchise agreements?

Mr. Kamenetz sought to prohibit public officials, including members of the council, from taking gifts from registered lobbyists or anyone who does business with the county. The council limited that to banning gifts from anyone who does business with or is regulated by an official's "office, agency, board or commission." How that applies to, say, an employee of the Department of Parks and Recreation is clear; how it applies to a member of the council, whose authority is at the same time broader and less easily defined than other county officials, is not.

The executive wanted to prohibit council members from taking free food or beverages from a lobbyist or person doing business with the county unless all council members are invited. That mirrors a restriction on State House lobbying. But the council struck it, leaving themselves free to be wined and dined.

Mr. Kamenetz sought to ban elected officials from taking free tickets to public events unless they came from the sponsor of the event itself as a courtesy to the office. Under his version of the rule, it would have been OK for the Ravens to give council members free tickets to home games (questionable enough). But the council broadened that exception to the gifts rule so that they can take tickets to a "charitable, cultural, sporting or political event" as a "courtesy or ceremony of the office" no matter who they come from. That's exactly the sort of thing that led to a scandal in the Baltimore City Council several years ago. Even worse, the county council voted to exempt such free tickets from any reporting requirements.

Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr. said amendments should be considered in the context of a new Maryland law requiring local governments to have ethics standards at least as strict as the state's. "The administration had gone a little farther than the state level, and we thought we should be on the same playing field as other county officials," he said. That is to say, Baltimore County voters should expect their council members to hold themselves to the lowest possible ethical standard and nothing more.

Mr. Kamenetz has indicated that he's willing to accept the council's amended version of the legislation, and indeed, it does make a number of significant advances. Vetoing it would be counter-productive. But what he could do is demonstrate that he wants to be held to the higher standards that the council rejected. Some of the excised provisions, such as those dealing with gifts and tickets to sporting events, would have applied equally to him and the council alike. He should reintroduce those sections and make them apply only to the executive. Then we can see how comfortable the council is with the ethics of the lowest common denominator.