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Municipalities drag their feet on state-mandated ethics ordinance

A state law regarding ethical guidelines for municipal governments for conflicts of interest, financial disclosures and lobbying has municipalities across the state and in Carroll dragging their feet.

The state law passed in October 2010 required municipalities, county governments and the boards of education across the state to make their ethics requirements "as stringent as state law," said Jim Peck, the director of research at the Maryland Municipal League.

As of right now, close to three quarters of municipalities are completely exempt or partially exempt from the lobbying requirements of the law, Peck said. This is due to mostly the size of the municipality, the budget and whether the lobbying disclosure requirements could cause people to not run for office, according to Michael Lord, the executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

The law went into effect Oct. 1, 2011, but more than a year later, few municipalities have passed the ordinance. The reason for this is two-fold, Lord said. The commission had to create a model law for the municipalities to rework their ordinance from, and there is a lot of back and forth between the towns and the State Ethics Commission, he said.

The commission hoped to have most municipalities in compliance by this Oct. 1, Lord said.

"We have a lot of governments who are complying or on the verge of complying. The commission is pleased with the progress local governments have made," Lord said.

Mount Airy, Westminster and Manchester must fulfill all pieces of their ethics ordinance, including the lobbying requirements, which require a lobbying registration statement if a person intends to influence a town official or employee, or spends money on officials with the intent to influence.

Sykesville, Taneytown and Hampstead are exempt from the lobbying portion of the law. New Windsor and Union Bridge are completely exempt from the ethics ordinance. Sykesville passed the ethics ordinance with a few minor edits, said council member Ian Shaw.

All of the municipalities aside from Sykesville are still in the process of working on their ethics ordinance.

The state is still considering waivers for certain municipalities, which has held up the state from seeking out compliance issues, Peck said. The commission is not seeking out compliance issues at this time, because they are anticipating over the next few months, most of the municipalities will be in compliance, Lord said.

"We've been very comfortable with the fact that in the vast, vast majority of the cases they're getting there," Lord said.

Members of the Maryland Municipal League have resisted some of the requirements, and are creating a workgroup with members of the public and state government to make recommendations.

The workgroup is supposed to make recommendations by Dec. 1, Peck said, but they have not officially formed yet.

"We still hope something will come up, because times a wasting here," Peck said.

Municipalities try to work around the ordinance

Municipalities like Mount Airy have pushed back on some pieces of the ethics ordinance legislation that council members find too stringent.

Monday, members from the Town Council struck a provision which could in its broadest form require anyone who lives in town to get permission from the ethics commission before running for office. Members of the town council also struck financial disclosures for immediate family members, and said elected officials should list properties in town or contiguous to the town, but not any properties outside of the surrounding area.

"We've been deemed too big to be completely exempted, but we've kind of decided we're not going to enact bad laws," Peter Helt, Mount Airy's council president, said.

Helt said the ordinance is a response to the corrupt former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson. Johnson is currently serving a seven-year jail sentence for favoring developers and steering millions of dollars in federal and local funds to them.

"All the ethics reporting in the world isn't going to stop that because they're not going to report that stuff," Helt said. "If somebody's going to be a crook, they're going to be a crook."

Municipalities like Westminster have also had a difficult time deciding what it will do, said Mayor Kevin Utz. Westminster's city attorney is currently looking at the ordinance to attempt to receive exemptions. The city is working with other large municipalities such as Gaithersburg to try to come to a unified decision, he said.

Helt said the laws were created by career politicians, who do not understand municipal government officials still have their own jobs to worry about. His relatives would never give him information about their mortgages, and he wouldn't expect them to, he said.

"You do have to draw a line somewhere," Helt said. "We drew the line with anything, as a smart practice, that might affect the town."

Utz said the Westminster Common Council is not opposed to disclosure, but said they are looking out for future folks who want to be in elected positions. The extent of the financial disclosure, which includes mortgages and shares in a company, will make it difficult for people to want to run for office, he said.

"I'm not suggesting that we don't want to do it, but can it be a little less," Utz said.

In the meantime, Mount Airy's former ethics ordinance stands, Helt said. The council and local ethics commission sends updates to the State Ethics Commission as they work on which pieces of legislation fit for Mount Airy, he said.

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The ethics ordinance's future

Peck, of the Maryland Municipal League, said because nothing has been tested in court, it is unclear whether the Maryland State Ethics Commission has the final say on the town ordinance.

"I suspect strongly that the State Ethics Commission has the final say about what is acceptable, but it's possible that a court could disagree with the findings of the State Ethics Commission," Peck said.

Peck expects a change to the ethics ordinance in the upcoming state legislative session. Until that day happens, town councils like Mount Airy are hoping to find a happy medium eventually.

"This almost seems like a lesson in futility," Helt said.

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