County Executive’s Ethics Proposals and the Public Good

by Pete Munsey.

The public hearing over a trio of ethics proposals before the Baltimore County Council saw local activists and council members debate their worth to the public good.

Of County Executive John Olszewski’s three proposed governmental reforms, it was Bill 3-19, which would send to referendum a plan to devise a public financing system for county elections, much like those currently in place in Montgomery County and about due to be enacted in Howard County and Baltimore City, which garnered the most interest. All speakers giving public testimony were in favor of the bill, which would go on the ballot for voters to approve in 2020. The range of reasons for support were expanding the diversity of candidates, reining in the primacy of fundraising during election cycles, and restoring public trust that big donors do not exercise undue influence.

But it was Councilman Julian E Jones Jr, who took point at shooting holes at the proposal, summarizing his feelings with the question: “Where is the public benefit? What is the public good?”

Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski fields questions on the ethics package at the hearing.

The public good was defined once by Madison in Federalist No.10 as promoting diversity of interest and opinion, and Sheila Ruth, one of the local activists giving testimony, echoed that when she said that small donor systems “engage more people in elections and increase the diversity of donors and candidates”.

Jones’ definition of the public good is fairly narrow. He objected to the estimated expense, about $4 million dollars an election cycle, as money better used for schools and roads. Olszewski countered that this sum was small in comparison to the $12 billion dollars over four years the county will spend, and that school, roads and other core needs will be met even with the public financing option in place. He also mentioned there was a built in “back stop” to cease funding at the discretion of the executive if the expense could not be afforded.

But the public good is measured in more ways than roads. One of the words used in testimony by Ruth and others is perception. In order for democracy, which is a public good, to flourish is that a faith in its institutions be maintained. If there is a perception that elections are too expensive and therefore keep interested citizens from running for office, or if the perception is that big donors have undue influence not necessarily over outcome but in accessibility, then faith is shaken, and the institutions that rely on it are weakened.

A strong faith that our government is transparent and accessible to all is in the public good. And contrary to Jones’ argument that its “not all about the money” taken in by public servants such as himself (according to his August 2018 campaign finance report, going into an uncontested general election, he had $115,445 in his treasury), the perception that it is, whether it is real cause for concern, exists. Lessening that perception is healthy and is in the public good.

As Peta Richkus, another county activist who testified, and Ruth both stated, and as the county executive repeated, this bill would only give the voters the ability to be brought into the process by approving or disapproving the generalized set up of such a system. The details would be left to the council. And as local attorney Liz Entwistle said in her statement: “What are we afraid of?”

The council votes on this, and Olszewski’s two other bills on an ethics and accountability commission and restrictions on lobbying efforts by former county department and administrative officials, on Monday, March 18. We at Forward Baltimore urge you to call your council members, or email them, and tell them to support reforms for the public good.

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