The devil in the details of Carroll's ethics code

-A A +A

What is a regulation prohibiting county staff and volunteers from speaking to the media doing in an ethical code?

By The Gazette

The idea sounds good at first — an ethical Carroll County government is just what everybody wants.
How could anybody disagree with that?
As usual, the devil is in the details, specifically number 18 in the code of ethics, which tells all general county representatives and citizens who volunteer on boards, commissions, authorities, committees and whatnot to refer all media inquiries to the county administrator’s office.
Most of the bullet points in the code of ethics seem to stem from common sense: Having county supervisors and other representatives follow the laws of the country and the commonwealth, avoid profiting from their public involvement, conduct themselves reasonably and fairly and rise above reproach in all instances.
No problems with those ideas at all — that’s absolutely what citizens are pining for. But the “media inquiries” line raises both eyebrows and questions. Such as: what does that have to do with “ethics,” anyway?
Here’s what the code says: “Media Relations — All Board of Supervisor members and any members of boards, commissions, authorities, and committees understand the importance of timely and accurate information being presented to the media on various subjects.
"Therefore, all media inquiries and any press releases should be directed to the County Administrator’s office where the County Administrator may be able to assist with content to the media in addition to the elected or appointed official comments. This provision is not intended to stifle the delivery of information but rather to provide additional and supportive information on the topic."
This passage seems to protest too much.
In fact, it’s easy to read just the opposite into this idea — that this sends a message to people serving on different boards or committees that they could get in trouble if they talk to the media. After all, another part of the code talks about punishing people for violating these clauses.
“The chairs of boards, commissions, authorities, and committees and the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors have the additional responsibility to intervene when actions of members that appear to be in violation of the Code of Ethics are brought to their attention,” the document says.
“The Board of Supervisors may impose sanctions on members whose conduct does not comply with the County’s ethical standards, such as public or private reprimand, formal censure, loss of seniority or committee, authorities, and assignment or budget restriction.
"Where allowed by law, the Board of Supervisors may also remove members of Board-appointed boards, commissions, authorities, and committees from office."
Really? For talking to the news media about county policy — the work of the  people — as in the case of point number 18?
The controlling language in this point in the code could create a chilling effect on the speech of those involved with government.
It  goes nowhere in promoting ethical behavior. Nor does it indicate a transparent open government that works for the public.
What’s it doing in there? After all, the constitutionally-assured right of free speech is still enjoyed by all in Carroll County.
Supervisors’ Chairman Tom Littrell noted that the language of the code of ethics could be tweaked, before it was approved.
The news media perform a necessary watchdog role in any community.
The language involving media inquiries should be tweaked right out of there.