The fight for good government worth having, part 2

The fight for good government worth having, part 2 photo

Maryland’s public integrity crisis already has generated some responses.  For example, Del. Vaughn M. Stewart, D-Montgomery, has introduced a bill, HB 152,  to create a “public advocate” elected office that will “supercharge our state government’s agility, competence, transparency and fairness.”

Wow. Which of the Marvel Avengers does Del. Stewart see running for that office if created? (But the bill got a respectful committee hearing Jan. 25.)

While well-intended, the answer to improving ethics and accountability is not a politician—even one with superpowers—or a new bureaucracy.  To win a statewide election requires substantial money and support from a major political party.  Understanding that Montgomery County is a universe unto itself, even in that citizens will be skeptical that a partisan elected official will act even-handedly, holding the members of their own party to the same standard as the other.

As for Del. Stewart’s example of the comptroller, that is simply a transient confluence of personalities and personal politics.  A situation should not be confused with a system.  If he doubts that analysis, why not simply add duties to the Comptroller’s Office.  It would take a stopwatch—not a calendar—to measure the time between the comptroller’s first investigation of a member of the opposing party and shrill accusations of bias and a political agenda.

If partisan elections were an effective way of selecting ethical public officials, there would be no need for the proposed office in the first place.  As amply demonstrated by American history, the ballot box measures popularity, not integrity.  That’s why government watchdogs like inspectors general are not normally elected.

The real solution is to recognize that certain government functions like elections, public health, and public ethics should exist outside of the influence of partisan politics.  The dismissals of health officers in response to the COVID pandemic and the recent attempts by Baltimore City and Baltimore County to undercut their inspectors general are convincing evidence to that end.  While not under the same level of attack as in swing states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, Maryland elections officials are no less at risk.

Maryland needs to reform its patchwork quilt of public agencies that are odd amalgams of state and local.  The legislature should establish uniform rules for the appointment, service, and dismissal of nonpartisan officials like health officers, elections directors, and inspectors general.

These officials should be appointed by merit, serve fixed terms, and should be removed from office if the circumstances warrant.  Their dismissal, however, should not be shrouded in secrecy.  An appointed official terminated for cause should have the right to a public hearing before an impartial panel and the right of appeal.

This system should apply to a narrow range of public officials.  The governor, legislature, and local governments should continue to have the right to make most political appointments and for those appointees to “serve at the pleasure.”  However flawed, craven, and/or self-serving a policy action may be, governing bodies deserve appointees who will faithfully implement their policies (within the bounds of ethics and the law, of course).  As Baltimore scribe H.L. Mencken wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  By that measure, Maryland is getting a great deal of democracy lately.

Maryland is a “blue” state, but it also has deeply “red” cities and counties.  Restoring public confidence in the integrity of government cannot fall to a political party, a jurisdiction, or even the state of Maryland acting like a superhero.  What it requires is for leaders on both sides of the aisle to recognize that political influence and partisanship in some areas of governance are antithetical to democracy.  Without doubt, even the discussion of “de-partisanized zones” will trigger bitter warfare within and between parties.  For anyone who cares about our future, it is a fight worth having.

About The Author

Ken Decker

Ken Decker served as county administrator of Caroline County, Maryland, from 2011 to 2018. More recently, he is the founder of PensionBid, LLC, a small veteran-owned business that provides services to local government pension plans. Decker has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public administration.