|Image from OpenSource.com on Flickr|
Specifically, the county should establish an independent inspector general’s office, do away with the county council’s role in individual development review, create a public financing system for local elections, and include at-large seats on the county council.
Public trust is broken in Prince George’s
|Image from BK on Flickr|
Baker commissioned a blue-ribbon advisory board led by former Baltimore City mayor and renowned lawyer and higher education administrator Kurt Schmoke to issue recommendations for how the county could “provide transparent, open, and accountable services for its citizens.”
Schmoke’s advisory board issued a detailed report in June 2011, recommending a host of reforms, the most significant of which included establishing an independent inspector general’s office to investigate, publicly expose, and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse, as well as inefficiency and mismanagement by elected officials, county employees, and contractors. However, the county council blocked Baker’s efforts to establish the inspector general’s office.
Baker promised to redouble his efforts to enact ethics and transparency reforms in his second term, which began last December. Yet, shortly after he was re-inaugurated, one of his deputy administrators rhetorically unfurled a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared that the county had magically “transitioned…to a place where it’s a trusted brand, where people expect good things to happen.”
left his post after only six months in office to go head up Arlington County’s economic development office. Ouch!
The truth is that the ugly shadow of the Jack Johnson years still looms large over Prince George’s County, even now. People are still intensely mistrustful of the county government, and for good reason.
For example, many feel that Baker intentionally sandbagged the electorate when he reversed his stated opposition to gaming and instead supported construction of a billion dollar casino at National Harbor. Many feel the same way about Baker’s current effort to use a 2012 state law to circumvent the county’s charter cap on property taxes, known as TRIM.
The county council fares no better in the public’s eyes. Council chair Mel Franklin, for example, has evinced a bad habit of using legislative trickery to sneak through controversial, developer-friendly zoning bills at the last minute, evading public debate and opposition.
And last year, the council joined with Baker in a failed effort to push through a ballot measure to extend term limits in the county—a move funded heavily by developer interests, who sought to maintain their competitive political advantage by keeping their lasissez-faire friends in office longer.
|County Council. Image from Prince George's County.|
The county must institute bold reforms to restore public faith
Back in 2010, in the wake of the Jack Johnson debacle, everyone from the Washington Post to anonymous county employees was offering suggestions to Rushern Baker for ways Prince George’s could eliminate corruption, increase transparency and accountability, and structurally reform government. Here are my top four recommendations:
|Image from OEA-OES on Flickr|
- Establish an Independent Inspector General’s Office. This was a primary recommendation of the Schmoke panel that was quashed by the council in 2012. This council should stand up and allow the IG’s office to come to fruition. The council’s non-independent Office of Audits and Investigations, which was originally established in 1970, and the recently created Office of Ethics and Accountability, established as a compromise in 2012, should both be folded into and replaced by an independent IG’s office. The IG should serve a four-year term that overlaps with the council and county executive’s terms, such that the IG’s term expires at the midpoint of each council term and continues to the midpoint of the succeeding council’s term.
- Eliminate Council Review of Individual Development Applications. The courts may well take care of this item themselves, but if they don’t, the council should immediately extricate itself from the administrative review process relating to individual development applications. Any administrative appeals from the Planning Board’s decisions should be heard by the Board of Appeals, and any further review should take place in the courts. The council should confine itself to setting the general ground rules, as reflected in the Zoning and Subdivision ordinances, and then leave the administration of those rules to M–NCPPC.
Image from Patrick Gensel on Flickr
- Establish a Public Financing System for Local Elections. Thanks to a recent amendment to state campaign finance law, counties may now establish a voluntary public financing system for local elections. Prince George’s should definitely do this, as Montgomery County has recently done. U.S. Supreme Court precedent prevents the imposition of a mandatory public campaign finance system, so it’s not a panacea. Nevertheless, such a system can help to reduce the influence of special interest money—particularly from developer interests—that has so tainted Prince George’s politics.
- Restructure the Council to Include At-Large Seats. Currently, the Prince George’s county council has 9 members, each of whom represents a single district of the county. Through informal features such as “council courtesy,” where council members often blindly defer to the wishes of the council member whose district is most impacted by a particular decision, council members each tend to be rulers of their own individual fiefs. There is no member of the legislature who is electorally accountable for being concerned with countywide interests. That can make it hard for the council to make hard policy choices that may be good for the whole county in the long term, but may appear to disadvantage a particular district’s parochial interests (such as preventing unconstrained sprawl development away from transit). To address this issue, Prince George’s should follow Montgomery County’s example and restructure its council so that it has 4 at-large seats and 5 district seats.
These suggested structural reforms will take hard work and political sacrifice to implement successfully—but over time, they will help to restore the public’s faith and trust in the Prince George’s County government. That, in turn, will foster more robust commercial investment and development in the county—thereby enabling it to bring in more revenue without raising taxes.
In the third and final segment in this #PGTaxes series of posts, I will discuss another, more concrete, strategy that the county can implement to raise more revenues over the long term without raising taxes.