Published February 7, 2002
Harman Bill Goes Too Far
Honorable as his intentions may be and necessary as legislation might appear, Assemblyman Tom Harman is taking a too heavy-handed approach with his recent proposal about how local elected and appointed officials up and down the state should handle potential conflicts of interest.
People here in Huntington Beach have certainly undergone a long period of controversy over whether a city councilman acted properly over questions of conflict of interest. Many people charge that the public trust was broken and laws violated.
Being neither judge nor jury, I shall defer on the case of the resigned city councilman. It's not polite to kick someone when they're down.
But it is wrong to draw from our local situation a remedy that casts a blanket of suspicion over every appointed and elected local official in the state.
We should not be telling city council members, school and college trustees, commissioners and committee members that they always stand under a cloud and that they must be ready to leave the room at any time over any possible conflict of interest.
How freely would the deliberations of our chosen leaders be if officials constantly had to wonder if they had confessed to all potential conflicts? And absent from the discussion is what penalties would apply.
Would this encourage good people to serve in already-thankless positions of public trust?
Our lawmaker is overreaching on the remedy for a local problem.
Perhaps the fire and brimstone behind this proposal is based upon the personal experiences that our assemblyman had on the Huntington Beach City Council.
Based on quotes in the Independent, the assemblyman seems to carry a deep-seated disdain for his former council colleague.
But our federal and state constitutions each say that no law shall be written solely to punish just one person. And it would certainly be wrong to use one bad apple as a reason to cast suspicion upon every good person who serves as an appointed or elected local official.
The system that James Madison envisioned two centuries ago is what worked in Huntington Beach.
When an elected official assumes office, says our democratic tradition, you extend to them the faith that they will act honorably in the conduct of their duties.
Sometimes, that faith is clearly violated. Sometimes, the elected official uses enough rope to hoist themselves into plain sight, so that all may see their misdeeds.
This takes a while and it is painful, but this system worked in Huntington Beach.
A vibrant free press and a vigilant public brought alleged misdeeds into full view. And the courts of the land entered the picture as the alleged misdeeds were exposed.
No, this is not an easy way to do things, but this is the system that has allowed us to survive the resignation of one president, the impeachment of another and countless scandals. Some scoundrels seek and hold office, but that is no reason to change the overall central notion of our democracy, namely that people can trust most of their elected and appointed officials to be honorable.
Ethics laws are followed by the honorable and ignored by the scoundrels.
Let us strengthen freedom of the press and widen the public's access to their government. A free press and informed public offers a far better long-term guarantee of honest government than casting a top-heavy big-government cloak of suspicion over every local official in our state.