After months of discussion, Aberdeen City council approves new ethics law

After postponing the vote from its Jan. 29 meeting, the Aberdeen City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve legislation updating the town's Ethics Ordinance.

The amended ordinance was passed on the advice of city's lawyer, Fred Sussman, to bring the city in "total compliance with the state ethics commission," City Manager Douglas Miller said at Monday's city council meeting.

"I had also wanted certain clarifications on activities of especially elected officials as it deals with religious organizations; charitable organizations; civic organizations; and then put together some language and review that with our city attorney," Miller said.

Miller said that while he still wants to pursue those changes, he would instead present them to the Maryland State Ethics Commission, as well as through a possible state ethics review committee proposed by the Maryland Municipal League.

"The advice of the city attorney, and therefore my advice is that we go ahead and adopt this [the amended ordinance] as written this evening, and then I will pursue those other amendments that we talked about last time in a different manner," Miller said.

Councilwoman Ruth Elliott expressed concern about what position council members might be put in during the period any new amendments are being formulated.

"In the meantime, be very cautious as how you deal in your other civic endeavors in the city especially with fundraising," Miller responded. "We will be passing the strictest of ordinances, and you should be very cautious of how you proceed with especially fundraising for church and civic organizations."

"So you can't do much of anything, guys, you know, really!" Elliott said.

"You can breathe!" Bennett responded, drawing laughs from the rest of the council. Bennett has been at odds with the city's ethics commission over an adverse ruling it made against him in 2011.

Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck noted that council members could check with the ethics commission ahead of time to be on the safe side.

Last August, Bennett filed an appeal in Harford County Circuit Court of an earlier ruling by the ethics commission stating that he violated a provision in Aberdeen's ethics code using "the prestige of the office for private gain or the private gain of another" by visiting Augusta, Ga., in October 2011 to advocate for Ripken Baseball, which owns the Augusta GreenJackets, as well as the Aberdeen IronBirds who play in the city-owned Ripken Stadium.

Bennett, who at the time said he believed he had not committed any violations of what he said is an antiquated code, has been discussing a possible settlement with the panel through his lawyer, city officials confirmed in December. Meanwhile, his pending court appeal is scheduled to be heard on May 17 in Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air.

Flush tax waiver

The council also passed a resolution establishing a program granting exemptions to the state-mandated Chesapeake Bay restoration fee, also known as the "flush tax," to residents who meet certain financial hardships.

The exemptions would only apply to residents receiving certain forms of government assistance, including energy assistance, unemployment assistance and disability benefits. Residents who fall into these categories would have to provide documentation proving their hardship status. Bennett estimated less than a dozen people in Aberdeen would have this status.

Elliott asked whether the state provided any money for administrating the restoration fee. Director of Finance Opribo Jack replied that the state provides 5 percent of the city's total fee collection back to Aberdeen to cover administration costs.

The council also passed an ordinance related to the tampering or obstructing of utilities, which had also been postponed from Jan. 29 to determine if fines penalizing damage to utilities could help the city better cover the costs of the damage. For example, Miller said, damaging a fire hydrant could result in a $5,000 replacement cost while the fine would only be $500.

"I did check with our city attorney to see if we could put replacement costs in a penalty ordinance," Miller said. "We really can't. There are opportunities to do that, but not in this particular venue."

Miller suggested that the council add any stiffer penalties to help recoup replacement costs to the ordinances for the city's water and sewer systems.

Director of Public Works Matthew Lapinsky updated the council on the enhanced nutrient removal project at the city's wastewater treatment plant. Lapinsky said all of the concrete is out of the ground, and that the plant's processes are activated. He added that he hopes the facility will be "fully functional" in the next two months.

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