Avoiding conflicts of interests and the appearance of ethically compromising circumstances in small communities is one of the most difficult tasks public servants face.
It’s not because of any particular fault of officials at the community or the county level, but because smaller populations increase the likelihood that an official will encounter, in the course of conducting public business, enterprises and acquaintances with which he or she may be associated.
And then, of course, people will talk and speculate about whether that yay or nay vote was influenced by these associations.
Staying clear of these awkward situations requires more than a good ethics policy that reflects the difference between minor concerns and egregious breaches. Also necessary is an ethics commission that can help officials avoid difficulty before an issue develops.
In Ocean Pines, where work has begun on an ethics policy that goes beyond its simplistic behave-or-be-kicked-out approach to enforcement, the board of directors also should empower the committee to issue advisory opinions to officials who wonder whether their involvement in a situation would be ethically questionable.
With the number of people willing to serve limited by virtue of the population, it’s almost guaranteed that an issue will arise during their terms that is at least loosely connected to where they live or work.
Having an independent board of review to which they can turn for advice or a ruling that they could make public would go a long way towards reducing the possibility of controversy and speculation about their motives.
A good ethics commission would do more than help keep public servants straight; it would keep their constituencies straight as well.