Baker isn’t duck­ing is­sue of cor­rup­tion in Pr. Ge­orge’s

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - ROBERT MCCART­NEY

When FBI agents ar­rested then-County Ex­ec­u­tive Jack John­son in a cor­rup­tion in­quiry in Prince Ge­orge’s in Novem­ber, his newly elected suc­ces­sor, Rush­ern Baker, was loath to talk about the case. Baker didn’t want lurid con­tro­versy over an al­legedly crooked govern­ment to dis­tract at­ten­tion from jobs, schools and other press­ing is­sues.

It’s dif­fer­ent to­day. Six weeks af­ter tak­ing of­fice Dec. 6, Baker talks openly about the need to bat­tle the county’s “pay to play” cul­ture.

“We’ve got to deal with the ele­phant in the room,” Baker (D) said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day. “ The per­cep­tion is you can’t get a fair shake in Prince Ge­orge’s County. Whether that’s real or imag­i­nary, we’ve got to deal with it. And the only way to do that is to as­sure peo­ple that here are the ex­tra steps that we’re go­ing through to say that is not ac­cept­able in Prince Ge­orge’s County.”

I’m re­lieved that Baker has not suc­cumbed to the temp­ta­tion to duck the is­sue per­ma­nently just be­cause Prince Ge­orge’s hates to see its prob­lems aired in pub­lic. As I’ve writ­ten be­fore, the whole Washington area has a stake in en­cour­ag­ing com­mer­cial devel­op­ment in Prince Ge­orge’s, and

end­ing the sleaze would be a big help.

To that end, Baker ac­knowl­edged frankly that the John­son scan­dal led him to move more quickly than planned to re­place some of his pre­de­ces­sor’s top of­fi­cials. Al­though it would have been prefer­able “ to do it ju­di­ciously and take your time,” Baker said, “I felt that the pub­lic needed to see vis­i­bly that we were go­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion and with dif­fer­ent peo­ple in there.”

Baker also has ar­ranged for a task force and a uni­ver­sity in­ves­tiga­tive team to re­port back to him on how to end cor­rup­tion and save money in hous­ing, zon­ing and other land-use prac­tices. He’s press­ing state and county law­mak­ers to sup­port ethics re­form leg­is­la­tion, which is al­ready en­coun­ter­ing re­sis­tance.

“We’re not go­ing to move be­yond what peo­ple think about us un­less we take some con­crete, demon­stra­tive steps, and that’s what this leg­is­la­tion says,” Baker said.

Ob­vi­ously, fight­ing cor­rup­tion is good in it­self. In ad­di­tion, the re­gion would ben­e­fit, be­cause at­tract­ing more busi­ness to Prince Ge­orge’s would help nar­row the area’s east-west im­bal­ance in jobs. The lop­sided dis­tri­bu­tion cur­rently adds to traf­fic be­cause too many res­i­dents com­mute be­tween homes in the east and jobs in the west.

More­over, Prince Ge­orge’s needs the ex­tra com­mer­cial tax rev­enue to help im­prove its school sys­tem — which ranks near the bot­tom in Mary­land — and bat­tle un­em­ploy­ment and other so­cial ills in poorer neigh­bor­hoods in­side the Belt­way.

Of course, cor­rup­tion isn’t the only chal­lenge Baker faces as he tries to pro­mote busi­ness in the county. In the wide-rang­ing talk in his of­fice in Up­per Marl­boro, he also stressed the im­por­tance of “chang­ing the mind-set” of the County Coun­cil and state leg­isla­tive del­e­ga­tion. He wants law­mak­ers to think more of help­ing the county as a whole rather than just their in­di­vid­ual dis­tricts.

Baker said that’s nec­es­sary right now so the county can tar­get scarce re­sources to spur devel­op­ment around Metro sta­tions in­side the Belt­way, es­pe­cially at the New Car­roll­ton and Branch Av­enue sta­tions.

Those sites might not en­thuse leg­is­la­tors rep­re­sent­ing dis­tricts many miles away, such as those in the south­ern or cen­tral parts of the county out­side the Belt­way, Baker said. But he said those projects of­fer the best chance of at­tract­ing state and fed­eral sup­port and of be­ing com­pleted in the course of his four-year term.

“ The ten­dency is al­ways to look where your leg­isla­tive or coun­cil district [is] and say, ‘I want to bring some­thing back,’ ” Baker said.

“What I’m try­ing to get folks to see is that we’re all go­ing to ben­e­fit greatly if the county is viewed as a place that’s grow­ing and at­trac­tive.”

Baker is also go­ing to need law­mak­ers to set aside parochial in­ter­ests to pass the ethics bills he’s pro­posed. Their fate in the state leg­is­la­ture will be an im­por­tant early test of whether his ef­forts to clean up county govern­ment are suc­ceed­ing.

One mea­sure, in par­tic­u­lar, faces op­po­si­tion. It would make it harder for County Coun­cil mem­bers to in­ject their views in pend­ing devel­op­ment pro­pos­als, un­less a de­vel­oper or res­i­dent asked for coun­cil in­ter­ven­tion.

Coun­cil mem­bers don’t get to vote on the bill, but some have al­ready crit­i­cized it in in­ter­views with the Gazette. It seems that they just don’t want to give up any author­ity over devel­op­ment re­quests, even though such en­gage­ment can be an in­vi­ta­tion to il­licit fa­vors.

One of Baker’s al­lies in the Gen­eral Assem­bly, Del. Justin Ross (D-Prince Ge­orge’s), pre­dicted ethics re­form would pass any­way, al­though pos­si­bly af­ter be­ing re­vised.

“If we don’t deal with this, ev­ery other en­deavor that we take on will be harder,” Ross said. “ This is what the rest of the re­gion and the world is think­ing, and we need to be hon­est about it.”

It’s only a start, but at least Baker and his sup­port­ers are con­spic­u­ously push­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

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