www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/anne-arundel/bs-md-ar-new-ethics-rules-20121115,0,4420748.story

baltimoresun.com

Annapolis to rewrite ethics rules for elected officials

Limits on free meals, more enforcement power pending

By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

8:43 PM EST, November 15, 2012

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Proposed new ethics rules would end the practice of keeping secret any unethical conduct by Annapolis city officials.

Current law requires all violations to be kept confidential, city Ethics Commission Chairman Jim Dolezal said. The new laws call for the posting of summary explanations online.

If passed by the City Council, it will be Annapolis' first major rewrite of ethics rules in 18 years.

"Our goal is to really make the city government as open and ethical as we can," Dolezal said. "If we made a finding of [a] violation, it continued to be confidential. We thought it should be public."

The plan drafted by the city's Ethics Commission also limits free meals and outlaws free tickets to sporting events for elected officials. The plan gives the commission authority to levy fines of up to $5,000 for infractions.

Mayor Joshua Cohen, who recently introduced the new rules to the council, said the provisions give the laws "some teeth."

Officials said that there was no specific instance that triggered the changes. Rather, they come as jurisdictions across Maryland revamp their rules to match or exceed the state's ethics code. A 2010 law effectively strengthened a number of provisions for local elected officials and school board members.

In Annapolis, some of the provisions go beyond state requirements. The city has proposed prohibiting elected officials from accepting more than $35 worth of free meals from each lobbyist per year.

"From our prospective, there was no need for the mayor or anyone else to have multiple [free] meals with the same person," Dolezal said. "It just gives the wrong impression."

Michael W. Lord, the Maryland State Ethics Commission's executive director, said about 160 local jurisdictions needed to ensure their financial disclosure and conflict of interest provisions were at least as strict as state law. Previously, the local rules only needed to be "similar."

While rewriting Annapolis' code went smoothly, some other jurisdictions have been concerned about matching the state disclosure rules, which require officials to reveal all their corporate interests, land ownership in any state and their spouse's employer.

"Some folks are not happy," Lord said. "Part of that is the extent of it, part of it is a misunderstanding" about what the law required.

In Baltimore County, officials ran afoul of state ethics rules when they enhanced local laws but gave themselves a provision to continue accepting tickets to sporting events. The Baltimore County laws were eventually rewritten again to forbid accepting sports tickets.

Both Anne Arundel County and the Anne Arundel County school board have already rewritten their policies to match state law.

"We've got a lot of folks up and running," Lord said, adding that there are a few more still in the process of rewriting their rules.

City officials are scheduled to have a public hearing before February on Annapolis' proposed rules.

ecox@baltsun.com