On MACo’s first day, the ‘real work’ involves homespun ethics advice and deep dives into tech

August 17, 2022

Maryland Matters

Attendees at a Maryland Association of Counties summer conference seminar listen to a presentation on how technology can help identify solutions to housing shortages. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

The party scene in Ocean City is so relentless during the week of the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference that it’s easy to forget that thousands of local and state officials, business leaders and political operatives are on hand for official purposes — not just to eat, drink, politick and gossip.

Wednesday, the first day of the four-day conference, features the well-attended MACo golf tournament. Nevertheless, hundreds of early-bird attendees who eschewed the links were moving around the Roland Powell Convention Center in the afternoon, conducting the people’s business. They had their pick of sessions on offshore wind energy, health care technology, cybersecurity and more.

One especially well-attended session was a seminar on ethics in government, part of the program for county officials enrolled in what’s known as the Academy for Excellence, a certificate program run by MACo, the Maryland Municipal League, the Local Government Insurance Trust and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland College Park. The 90-minute discussion was led by Ernest Crofoot, a former city manager and city attorney in Pocomoke City, who put the 100 elected officials, department chiefs and rank-and-file government workers on hand through a series of hypothetical scenarios and potential dilemmas involving their personal businesses, family ties, offers of free meals and tickets to sporting events, and more.

Baltimore City Councilmember Odette Ramos (D), who was moderating the discussion, said she and her fellow officeholders had much to learn.

“Electeds often get tripped up by ethics,” she said. “There’s nuances. There’s a legal part. And then there’s everything in between.”

Crofoot offered an array of homespun advice, starting with something he referred to as Nan’s Law — a reference to his grandmother, a former Baltimore County restaurateur.

“If you think they’re too young to drink, don’t serve them,” he recalled her saying. “I’d rather lose a customer than a liquor license.”

In other words, he said, a government official, faced with a potential ethical dilemma, should repeat this mantra: “When in doubt, don’t.”

Crofoot also said that public officials in Maryland, depending on where they live and work, should also consider “The Washington Post test,” or “The Baltimore Sun test,” or “the Delmarva News test.” Do officials want their activities to end up in the media?

More than anything, Crofoot preached disclosure.

“When you get involved in an ethical pickle,” he said, “you have to cleanse yourself from the pickle brine.”

Many of the workshops during the MACo conference are moderated by members of the General Assembly and municipal leaders. Del. Julian Ivey (D-Prince George’s) and Sens. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery), Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard) and Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) led Wednesday sessions.

Many of the first-day seminars had a tech component. Attendees could take part in sessions on emergency communications technology, ‘digital equity and affordable connectivity,’ and the state’s “Total Human Services Integrated Network,” known as MD THINK and described as a one-stop platform for local governments to streamline service delivery and sort analytics. 

At a seminar on how to survive a ransomware attack, local officials were advised to “prepare now and do not pay.” There was also a “deep dive” into Maryland’s move toward Next Generation 911.

At a session focused on technology trends, an Amazon Web Services representative described how the City of Virginia Beach is using sensors to predict where and when flood waters will hit after a storm. 

“They work together with first responders, with the county areas, that help and need this information,” said AWS executive government advisor Hugh Miller. “Part of what they’re doing is using machine learning to predict when there will be flooding and be able to disseminate information out to their citizens…” 

For former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), a former municipal official and Prince George’s county executive who is attending his 47th MACo conference, the event showcases efforts to improve the delivery of services. 

“I am still one of the old-fashioned ones that believe government can work,” he said. “It’s a matter of holding what is important. You were elected to do a job. It’s an exciting job and it’s worthwhile, and let’s go do it.” 

Prince George’s County Chief Administrative Officer Tara Jackson said she appreciates the opportunity to disconnect from the day-to-day, to focus on big picture.

“For me the value is taking time out to sit and listen, when you’re not in the midst of whatever the crisis is, whatever the to-do list has you doing,” she said. “It’s the value to be able to think and to hear what other colleagues are thinking around certain issues and what they may be doing and planning.”