The Right Model for Reforming Ethics in Prince George’s County
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has appointed former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and former county judge William Missouri to oversee the creation of an Inspector General’s Office in Prince George’s County. The Office would be responsible for investigating claims of unethical behavior and rooting out corruption in County government.
While it has been publicly reported that they are looking to Montgomery County’s model for an Inspector General’s Office, established back in 1997, I believe they should look to a more contemporary model that has worked extremely well in a local government suffering from some similar problems to Prince George’s County. Although the City of Newark, New Jersey has much deeper challenges in overcoming crime and rehabilitating the City, when Mayor Cory Booker took charge in 2006, he was facing one uniquely related problem to our County Executive: he followed Mayor Sharpe James, who left office under a cloud of suspicion for corrupt behavior after serving 20 years in office. Mayor James had long been suspected of corrupt behavior in office and was the subject of a lengthy investigation by the FBI before being charged with any crime. Nearly two years after leaving office, Mayor James was convicted of five counts of fraud for selling nine City lots to a girlfriend, who resold them for hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. Does this story sound familiar to you? Prince George’s County is now dealing with the same challenge as we move past the administration of Jack B. Johnson.
Like County Executive Baker, Mayor Booker also had an ambitious, 100-day plan for immediately moving Newark forward, particularly in areas of rooting out corruption and reducing crime. In 2007, he established an Office of the Inspector General to carry out ethics reform throughout the City and investigate complaints of fraud and misconduct. The Inspector General also ensured that the Mayor, Municipal Council and all department heads received mandatory ethics training. Since being established on August 2007, the Office of the Inspector General has had the following accomplishments:
- Indictments: 19, which all closed out with guilty pleas
- Money saved from salaries due to suspensions, terminations, and resignations: $2.5 million
- Projected savings from investigations: $1.6 million
- Closed Investigations: 271
- City employees arrested: 91
- Cases handled administratively: 40
In another controversial move, Mayor Booker appointed Garry McCarthy, former Deputy Commissioner of Operations of the New York City Police Department, as the director of the Newark Police Department. Crime was the biggest problem facing the City, with gangs and drug dealers threatening public safety at every turn. McCarthy’s appointment was not popular with Newark’s Chief of Police, who often clashed with McCarthy’s decisions and eventually resigned in 2009. The position of Chief of Police was then abolished for good, as many, including Mayor Booker, believed that the Chief was more concerned about meeting union demands than fighting crime on behalf of residents. Could that be part of our County’s problem too? That’s for you to decide, but whatever the case may be, Mayor Booker’s appointment of McCarthy has turned out to be a good one, as crime has dropped significantly in the City of Newark, and the City currently leads the nation in violent crime reduction. Mayor Booker and Director McCarthy regularly accompany resident-led night patrols that include members of the clergy, concerned parents, and even senior citizens, who volunteer to visit the City’s most dangerous neighborhoods, confront criminals and get them off the streets of Newark. Can you imagine leadership like that in our county? The statistics prove that Booker’s strategy is working. As of July 26, 2009, murders are down 42% overall, rapes are down 41% overall and robberies are down 12% since 2008. For more on this story, I encourage you to tune in to the second season of a great documentary about the City of Newark, Brick City, which premieres on the Sundance Channel on January 30, 2011.
Mayor Booker clearly understands that you really can’t achieve ethics reform unless your government operates in total transparency. That is another quality I admire about him. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and you’ll see how he seems to operate 24 hours a day online. Right now you can follow @corybooker on Twitter to see how he is responding to resident requests (following a major snowstorm) by delivering diapers, shoveling snow, and helping a resident get to the hospital for a chemo treatment. How would that change people’s view of our government if our County leaders demonstrated that kind of initiative and dedication? By comparison, @rushernbaker has not said anything on Twitter since November 12 and the County’s @PrinceGeorgesMd Twitter account is informative but does not incorporate any creativity or responsiveness to residents in its tweets. It seems like they are floundering, at best, and lack the social media savvy needed to gain visibility and followers. Twitter is the antithesis of bureaucratic messaging, and if Baker’s communications team wants to improve, they are going to need to figure out how online transparency operates. I’ll give them a little more time on that front.
In wrapping up this rather lengthy blog entry, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Rushern Baker has to search far and wide for a model of ethics reform that can work. Make a short trip to Newark, NJ, and spend a day with Mayor Cory Booker. They actually have something in common, because they both lost an election for the highest office in their jurisdiction before they won. Mayor Booker lost a close race in 2002, and County Executive Baker lost in 2002 and 2006. In between election cycles, they both led community nonprofit organizations, though in my opinion, Mayor Booker’s Newark Now nonprofit has achieved far more to improve the lives of Newark residents than the Community Teachers Institute has in Prince George’s County. I believe that Mayor Booker’s proven track record of delivering results is one of the many reasons Mark Zuckerberg invested some of Facebook’s millions in improving Newark’s public schools at a time when more state cuts to education funding are inevitable. Imagine if we had those resources invested in our county instead?
The bottom line is that it takes the right kind of leader to achieve some of things that our county really needs, especially in regard to ethical reform. County Executive Baker does not need to recreate the wheel with commissions and task forces, because the right model is already out there. However, what might be difficult for Baker to do is reach out and find fresh faces who can turn the county in another direction. That will be a challenge for him, as he has already shown a tendency to rely only upon those who have stuck by him through two losing elections until he was finally victorious in 2010. Just take one look at Baker’s transition team and my point is proven. If Baker shows me that he is willing to take some risks and be bold about reforming the County in the next couple of months, only then will he make a believer out of me.