Public service is a noble calling, and election or appointment to public office a singular honor and privilege. The vast majority of our public officials get that, and they serve their communities honestly and diligently, often at great sacrifice to themselves and their families. They relish the opportunity to help make their community and nation a better place.

So what has happened to that minority who violate their oath and that sacred trust? Well, it is simply hard to comprehend.

The FBI's recent sting operation stands out as the national poster child for public corruption in New Jersey. Some 44 public officials and others were arrested for various violations of federal law.

One of those arrested was the 32-year-old mayor of Hoboken, Peter Cammarano. He had been in office for a little more than a month, but had already made his political philosophy quite clear. He is allegedly quoted as saying, "The way I operate in politics, anybody who helps me, I help them." That statement alone, if true, betrays a warped sense of duty to the people of Hoboken. It also raises the specter of money in politics.

Unquestionably, campaign expenditures have increased exponentially. It is not unusual today for candidates for the state Legislature to spend between $1 million and $3 million dollars or more. Congressional campaigns require at least that much, and campaigns for the U.S. Senate require significantly more.

Indeed, it is that synergy between money and policy choices that is at the heart of today's "pay to play" debate. Where do you draw the line between legitimate contributions by special interests that subsequently trigger favorable treatment, and illegitimate contributions that are made in exchange or consideration for support - a quid pro quo? It is a fuzzy area laced with minefields.

Unfortunately, the laws in place today provide the slippery slope that makes the crossover from the appropriate to the inappropriate an easier transition. It is also a system fueled by cynicism about politics and government, one that poisons our body politic.

Members of the current Congress are expected to spend much of their time making fundraising calls and hosting fundraisers. It is reported that the new members have been told by their leadership that they are expected to raise between $250,000 and $850,000 in so-called "dues money" for committee assignments.

Where must these members look to obtain the money to make these "donations?" Well, they often look to the groups who are affected most by the laws that Congress seeks to enact.

Such a practice not only raises serious conflict-of-interest issues, but feeds public distrust and cynicism. So the system in place today - which requires the infusion of campaign money to either perpetuate or change the balance of power - creates a breeding ground for the conduct that is the focus of these recent prosecutions. State lawmakers find themselves under similar fundraising pressures.

So what is the answer? There is no magic bullet or easy solution. There is no simple legislative fix, and of course, we cannot legislate ethics and morality. However, there are a number of things that I believe we can do to improve the system. It begins with us, as informed citizens.

Let's talk to our children about basic civics at home and in the classroom. I can still remember Mrs. Hewitt and my eighth grade civics course. She instilled in us a basic understanding of the role of government and our individual responsibilities as citizens. We were also taught that character and ethics really count. Putting civics back into our school curriculum would be a good investment.

The media also have an important role to play in educating the electorate about the candidates for public office. Although some of the print media has been forced to curtail their commitment to political reporting, they are the best source of in-depth coverage of the candidates. We need to expand that coverage.

Organizations like the League of Women Voters, institutions of higher learning and many others provide important forums for debate and act as catalysts for a better-informed public.

As issues become more complex and the job more demanding, we must attract our best to public service. The recent town-hall meeting fiascos around the country are hardly an inducement to enter public life. How can we possibly encourage the very best and brightest among us to stand for public office when we treat them with so little respect? It is no wonder that many just refuse to subject themselves or their families to such nonsense.

We should certainly strengthen our so-called "pay to play" laws. Since important first amendment rights are at play, any initiative has to be carefully crafted.

Finally, perhaps it is time for us to have a serious debate about the public financing of campaigns. The Fair Elections Now Act introduced in the House by Reps. John Larson, D-Conn., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., and in the Senate by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., is a good starting point.

As campaign-finance laws are challenged constitutionally, it just might be a good time to change the funding source for campaigns. If good old-fashioned retail politics come from that, it would be a bonus. We certainly learn little about candidates from most of the 30-second commercials and direct mail flyers that bombard us.

In our present system, we spend more time and effort picking out our cars than we do our public officials. Perhaps if we spent more time learning about our candidates before we vote we will end up with fewer lemons.

(William J. Hughes was Second District congressman from 1975 until 1995 and served as ambassador to Panama from 1995 to 1998. He lives in Ocean City.)