Baltimore County

Balto. Co. Council scales back, passes ethics reform bill

Baltimore County Council members unanimously passed wide-ranging ethics reform legislation Monday, but not before scaling back parts of the measure.

A series of amendments sponsored by all seven council members weakened parts of the original bill proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Those sections touched on when officials can accept gifts and what defines a conflict of interest for council members.

The new rules still will require elected officials' financial disclosure forms to be posted online starting in May 2012, prohibit former employees from lobbying on issues they worked on and strengthen a county charter rule against council members holding state jobs.

Kamenetz proposed the package in November. Many of his recommendations were driven by a 2010 state law that makes local governments adopt ethics rules that are at least as strong as those for state officials.

Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. said members felt the Kamenetz administration "went a little bit too far" in parts of the bill.

"The bottom line is that we were mandated by the state to meet requirements that they have, and we've met that," said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat. "Council members don't think that we should have to meet other obligations that the state's not asking for."

Council members did not publicly discuss or debate the amendments before adopting them.

Even with the changes, the new rules meet or exceed state requirements, the council's legal counsel and secretary, Thomas J. Peddicord, told the council Monday night.

Under one amendment, the council deleted an entire section defining conflicts of interest for council members. The members will still be covered under another section of the bill that defines conflicts of interest for all public officials, but those definitions are written more broadly.

The original legislation said public officials could not accept gifts from someone they know does business "with the county." The council narrowed that rule to say they could not accept gifts from anyone they know does business with the "public official's office, agency, board or commission."

The council also changed language in a proposal to prohibit public officials from being paid to help a party with matters involving county agencies. Their amendment would make the rule only apply to people who are helping the business for "contingent compensation." That means that a volunteer on a county board could still help his or her employer with an issue or contract involving a county agency — because their salary is not contingent on that matter.

The original bill said council members could accept free tickets to charitable, cultural, sporting and political events — if the ticket came from the person sponsoring or conducting the event. An amendment removed the words "from the person sponsoring or conducting the event," so they could take tickets from anyone.

Among other things, the bill will prohibit county employees from participating in matters involving their parents or siblings. Current law only makes people recuse themselves from matters in which a spouse or child has an interest.

Contractors would not be allowed to bid on a project if they employ someone who has had a hand in writing bid specifications for that project

Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, said the county executive is pleased with the final product.

"The real focus of tonight is that this county council and this administration just passed the most sweeping ethics legislation in the history of the county, that is perhaps the strongest in the state, and that is stronger than what the state ethics commission requires," Mohler said. "So tonight is a victory for good government."