The Taneytown City Council on Monday adopted amendments to the city’s ethics and campaign finance laws in an effort lawmakers say will improve transparency among candidates during elections and elected officials.
Amendments to Taneytown’s ethics ordinance will require select city staff and all elected officials to complete more stringent financial disclosure forms, while changes to the campaign finance ordinance will allow the city’s Ethics Commission to fine candidates that do not comply with campaign finance reporting requirements.
Both amendments passed with a 3-1 vote. Councilman Donald Frazier opposed both ordinances, citing too much power given to the volunteer ethics commission.
Ethics law amendments
Taneytown ordinance 09-2018 requires elected officials to disclose their interests in real property — including the properties they own — interests in corporations and partnerships, interests in entities doing business with Taneytown, financial or in-kind gifts, employment, earned income and indebtedness to entities doing business with the city, among other provisions.
Changes to the ordinance will require elected officials to disclose whether a property is their principal residence and whether any part of it is rented or leased to individuals who are not immediate family of the elected official or city staffer.
The adoption of the amendments comes after the city began leveling fines against Frazier when a late October criminal summons revealed he was illegally renting apartments in the basement of his single-family home on Bentley Street. The city code prohibits “rental of rooms/apartments” in the district where Frazier’s home is located.
More stringent requirements outlined by the amendments will also require those who fill out the financial disclosure forms to disclose all sources of income — including sole and part ownership of businesses — for themselves and immediate family. The ordinance previously required candidates to disclose earned income.
According to the IRS, earned income includes wages from a job, salaries, tips, long-term disability benefits and self-employment earnings.
Changing the ordinance to encompass all forms of income would require elected officials to disclose money they receive from renting properties, Taneytown Attorney Jay Gullo said.
“If you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, whatever, that’s living with you, fine,” said Councilman Bradley Wantz. “If you’re renting them a part of your house, that’s a whole different issue. When you start opening up your house … that’s where you have the problem.”
Frazier asked his peers why anyone would need to know if an elected official — or city staffer — was renting out parts of their residence or other properties. “I don’t think Taneytown can regulate what people do with their properties outside of Taneytown,” he said.
He suggested that elected officials shouldn’t have to disclose whether they are renting out properties outside of the city. Maryland property records show that Frazier, in addition to his Taneytown residence, co-owns one property in Manchester and two in Glen Burnie.
“So you own a house in Timbuktu and you rent it to people, that’s income, and that’s where we get into this ethics,” Wantz said. “We need to know where your money is coming from.”
Changes to campaign finance law
Taneytown’s ordinance 08-2018 requires candidates for elected office to report financial contributions and expenditures to the city’s ethics commission.
The amendments allow the volunteer commission to impose fines for reports that are incomplete or incorrect.
Political committees are required to report contributions to candidates and any contributions received by a candidate or political committee have to be put into a campaign checking account, the updated ordinance mandates.
The provisions outlined by Taneytown’s campaign finance law do not require self-funding candidates who sign an affidavit swearing their contributions do not exceed $500.
The ethics commission reviews the campaign finance reports and now can fine candidates or committees up to $500 per violation of the reporting requirements. It also has the authority to request and receive documents related to campaign finance.
Arguing against the bill, Frazier said that a commission of non-elected officials shouldn’t have the authority to impose such hefty fines and should be limited to requesting financial documents.
“I think it’s the worst piece of legislation I’ve seen since I’ve been on council,” Frazier said. “To give an unelected board this kind of authority.”
“I don’t think they should have the power to receive any documents they request, just financial documents,” Frazier said, proposing to change the proposed amendments. The other lawmakers rejected his proposal.
“It is not any documents that are going to make your life miserable, it’s what [the commission] will need to prove your innocence or guilt under this provision,” Wantz said. “If you want to be found innocent of whatever thing they’re accusing you of, then by all means provide whatever you can. If you have something to hide, absolutely fight it tooth and nail.
“But that’s the key here: if you actually have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t have an issue complying with the request.”
Frazier also objected to the fact that candidates or committees found to have willfully violated the campaign finance requirements will be guilty of a misdemeanor, a new provision.
Councilman Joe Vigliotti pointed to the fact that the fines are to be issued at the discretion of the ethics commission. Not every mistake will be fined, he said, as commissioners will likely work with candidates that make mistakes to get them right.