A Worm in An Apple
In the theater we know as Maryland state government, House Bill 588 and Senate Bill 793 should be referred to as the “Common Sense Ethics Act of 2006.” This legislation involves three issues dear to many voters – farming, ethics and the environment. Otherwise stated, regulations to protect the Chesapeake Bay are only as good as the availability and capability of the professionals hired to implement the laws.
These bills seek to exempt certain employees of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) who are employed by or have a financial interest in a farm business, from hiring restrictions imposed by the present interpretation of the state ethics law by the Maryland State Ethics Commission (MSEC.)
Recently, the Ethics Commission has settled upon a more restrictive approach to the state’s ethics, determining that farmers, who have first hand knowledge and agricultural experience, are not allowed to hold positions in the Maryland Department of Agriculture because most farmers live on farms and therefore have a “financial interest” in the business of farming.
As a result, the state’s Department of Agriculture is having a hard time finding and employing professionals to implement environmental laws mandated by the General Assembly.
When our legislators approached the Ethics Commission to work out this problem, the Ethics Commission suggested Department of Agriculture seek a legislative remedy.
In a plot twist that can only happen in the opera known as Annapolis, the Ethics Commission is now vigorously opposing the very legislation they suggested be pursued.
Word has it that even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation supports the legislation.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Del. Jeannie Haddaway (R., Eastern Shore) remarked: “I think it is extremely important for people working with agriculture laws and regulations to have a true understanding of the industry. This bill will allow the Department of Agriculture to hire qualified candidates and better serve our farmers, so I support it wholeheartedly.”
Another sponsor, Del. Paul S. Stull (R., Frederick), volunteered the example of “the nutrient management program to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. This program requires personnel with expertise in soil management. Many times the people who could do the job cannot be hired because of the ethics regulations. The bill is written in a way that the secretary of agriculture and his staff can monitor any employee who is working for the department. This is a good bill and would be a plus for the Department of Agriculture in carrying out its assigned functions.”
Meanwhile, it quickly became obvious that the Ethics Commission never got the memo: “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin'.”
In a hearing in the House of Delegates on February 15, it is reported that Ethics Commission Executive Director Suzanne Fox testified that “the Ag community is way too close-knit for it to be regulating itself.”
Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts spoke for “many in the farming community who were offended at hearing this remark that inferred that farmers could be unethical because farmers are a close-knit community… It is a fact that farmers live in close-knit rural communities, but that doesn’t make us unethical.” She went on further to say the statement indicates a basic lack of understanding of the business of agriculture.
On another point, many legislators – from both sides of the aisle – are curious as to why the Ethics Commission is weighing-in so aggressively on a policy-making matter which is clearly the purview of the legislative body.
When questioned in an e-mail, Ms. Fox promptly responded:
“The State Ethics Commission takes a position against this bill on the basis that a process is already established by subsection (d) to seek an exemption from secondary employment and financial interest restrictions, which process is applicable to all State employees. The State Ethics Commission has been aware of the Department of Agriculture’s position with regard to the subject matter of this bill and is sympathetic to its concerns, but the Commission’s position is that all State employees should be subject to the same restrictions and the same process for exemption from those restrictions.”
The testimony before the House Committee merely reflected the position and reasoning for the Commission’s opposition to the bill. The Commission’s position regarding this bill is in no way reflective of the Governor’s or any other agency’s position on the bill. The State Ethics Commission is an independent agency and has expressed its own position with regard to the proposed legislation.”
Well, on one item, there is a growing bi-partisan consensus – the Ethics Commission is certainly establishing that it is “independent.” The verdict as to whether or not it is grazing in the pastures of being too forthrightly “independent,” is still out.
Ms. Hoot observed that “under the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998 the Governor is supposed to provide 110 field employees in the soil conservation districts. Today we have 82…”
Lee McDaniel, president of the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts (MASCD,) explained, “We all want the same thing. MASCD is in the business of developing soil conservation and sediment control plans to protect the quality of the water by preventing nutrients and soil from entering into the bay.”
He emphasized that “ethics issues are addressed by the multiple layers of checks and balances in the system. The technician who works with the farmer and develops the plan does not have approval powers.”
Finally, it is an open secret that many family farms are no longer viable without outside income. Employment for farmers that helps protect the environment, sustain the business of farming and promotes excellence in the implementation of the mandates of the General Assembly is a win-win for everyone.
The ethics of the agriculture community is accepted by most Marylanders as beyond reproach. Perhaps if the Ethics Commission had better legislative guidance that will allow the employment of farming professionals – who live on a farm – then they will have more time to go after the real bad apples in the orchard of government ethics.
Nevertheless, just because there is a worm in an apple doesn't mean the whole orchard has rotten apples. The General Assembly needs to lend the state Ethics Commission a hand and point it in the direction of folks who need the full attention of their independent zeal.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org