As ethics violations go, not much meat to latest complaint

May 14, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

If ever there were a small-town soap opera issue that has left everyone involved needlessly breathless, it is this one over a Hagerstown task force that's been investigating racial tensions in the community.

Relax guys, it's just a committee trying to do a little good in this world, and will probably be no more or less effective than most committees.

Yet the group known as Building Community has been labeled a "secret society" because it, well, meets in secret and is now the subject of an ethics complaint filed by former mayoral candidate Tony Campello.

Meeting in secret wasn't terribly smart or necessary. Were they wise to the ways of the world, the group members would have demanded everyone's time and attention. That would have gotten them ignored, for sure.


And yes, the council should have been briefed in open session. Although given this council's frequent convulsions over new ideas, it is understandible why it was not.

Campello's complaint, explained in full on the opposite page, stems from the fact that a small amount of City Hall prestige - if one wishes to so label the commodity - and cash were diverted to Building Community without full-council consent.

Specifically, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman and Council member Alesia Parson-McBean helped found the group, so Campello argues it is a conflict for them to spend influential and financial capital on their own project.

Even if you argue that Building Community is a bad idea - which Campello does not - this is a hair-splitter.

Campello believes, for example, it was wrong for Parson-McBean to call on staff members to help out with the project unless she had approval of the full City Council.

Yet it seems to me, this is why they are called "staff." They exist to serve the residents by way of the council members. Suppose another council member wanted some statistics on growth, and asked an employee of the city planning department to do a couple hours of research.

Would any reasonable person demand that this council member receive permission of the full council member before making the request?

I doubt there is a council member alive who hasn't received a crime-related complaint and asked a beat cop to make an extra pass or two through the neighborhood in question. Such requests don't require a vote.

Look, voters certainly knew that Parson-McBean was proactive on racial issues when she was a private citizen. Indeed, she was elected in part to be publicly proactive on racial issues. So now that she's a member of council she's supposed to stop - unless she gets the approval of council?

All council members have pet projects, as it is reasonable to expect. So long as these pet projects are in the public good, council members are behaving not only in an ethical fashion, but in accordance with the job they were elected to do.

Zimmerman was named in the complaint because he spent $367 (since refunded) out of the administrator's budget to purchase refreshments and sundries for the group. Campello says this amounts to favoritism to a group that Zimmerman himself helped create, again without full council approval.

Except that the council did approve the funds when it approved the city administrator's discretionary budget. In this case, discretionary means discretionary, and the administrator has such a fund for the precise reason that he doesn't have to go running back to council for each dispersal of petty cash.

This is in no way an ethics question, this is a policy question. An ethics question would have arisen if, say, Zimmerman had bought $367 worth of Crackerjack from his brother-in-law the Crackerjack salesman.

Ethics violations generally involve someone's personal gain. Zimmerman was spending money for the gain of the people.

And in the bigger picture, I might suggest that Zimmerman is more deserving of praise for identifying a problem or potential problem in the city and trying to do something about it, rather than turning a blind eye.

Isn't that what city administrators do? Try to solve problems, or keep situations from becoming problems? In fact, if Zimmerman senses racial tension, it would be a dereliction of duty for him not to found a task force and fund it.

Part of my shtick is to poke fun at Council Member Penny Nigh for her preoccupation with gangs. But if she believes they are a problem or could become a problem, it is not her job to pay attention to a gadfly such as myself, it is to take whatever action she deems appropriate on behalf of the residents of Hagerstown -including the use of city resources.

I personally have my doubts about gang takeovers, or of a committee's ability to solve racial issues. But that doesn't make these efforts a waste of time, or unworthy of a little preventive medicine in the form of money or time.

I do credit Campello with being vigilant of government behavior, and of doing something for Building Community that the organization was not savvy enough to do on its own - draw attention to itself.

But if anything, this council already goes overboard with micromanaging.

Racism is a bad thing and efforts to fight racism are a good thing. Do those in and out of City Hall who are in a huff that Zimmerman and Parson-McBean acted on their own think there needs to be a long, drawn-out council debate on this point?

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