Howard County Council approves revised public ethics laws

The County Council's move to revise the county ethics laws makes Howard one of the first local governments to approve the new standards mandated by the General Assembly last year.

The changes, approved Monday, provide more detail in the county ethics laws regarding gifts, financial disclosure statements and lobbying provisions. It also expands the role of the county's ethics commission, requiring it to maintain an annual report of lobbying activity.

The bill bans former County Council members from lobbying on legislative issues for a year after leaving office, and prohibits former employees from bidding to do business with the county on a contract for which they helped write specifications.

The council also approved the Board of Education's capital budget request of $98.7 million for next year, which will fund projects including renovations at Atholton High School in Columbia and several other schools, as well as funding toward a new elementary school at Ducketts Lane in Elkridge.

The council tabled two other bills at Monday's hearing, including one that would allow the Police Department to tow a vehicle for a parking ticket that has gone unpaid for 90 days.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who introduced the bill in October, said the measure was meant to address concerns of illegally parked cars expressed by many residents.

Ball said after the meeting that the council delayed action on the bill to re-evaluate its effectiveness in addressing the intended purpose: reducing illegal parking on neighborhood streets. Existing policy allows for towing vehicles whose owners have accumulated three or more unpaid citations.

The council also tabled a bill introduced on behalf of the county executive that would limit the scope of Board of Appeals hearings. The bill would restrict the county panel's ability to review decisions by the county hearing examiner — an intermediate step to challenge decisions such as land-use rulings. The process now allows people bringing the appeals the option to start a new hearing with new evidence before the Board of Appeals, or they can rely on the record from the hearing examiner. Under the bill, all hearings would be based on the examiner's record.

The administration says the bill would reduce the Board of Appeals's caseload and help speed up zoning appeals. Critics however, say it would eliminate an important avenue for residents to have grievances heard. After taking up a decision with the Board of Appeals, the petitioner could take the challenge to Circuit Court.

At Monday's meeting, the council introduced several new pieces of legislation, including a bill that would add gender identity as a protected category under the county's anti-discrimination law, which also prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, political opinion and sexual orientation.

Also introduced was a bill that would give tax credits to homeowners who meet certain environmental building standards, and another that would define the number of new homes that can be built over the next several years.

Those bills and several others will be discussed at a public hearing on Monday, Nov. 21, at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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