After years of inaction, Carroll County ethics ordinance again a topic of discussion for commissioners

Seven years after former Gov. Martin O’Malley signed an ethics bill into law, and three years after Carroll’s Board of County Commissioners were slated to hold a public hearing on implementing the law locally before postponing the process, a grassroots organization has approached the board requesting it enact stronger ethics laws.

Thursday, members of the group VOCAL Carroll County attended the commissioners’ weekly open session all wearing various shades of purple — “bipartisan purple,” said Raquel Walsh, of Manchester.


Walsh and Beth Gray, of Eldersburg, each took time to read from a letter to the commissioners, splitting the letter in half and each taking a turn during the 3-minute public comment portion of the meeting to read from it.


Michael Lord, executive director of the Maryland State Ethics Commission, said there have been requirements for the local agencies for decades, but the change in 2010 required the local laws to mimic those at the state level. The ethics ordinance focuses primarily on issues like financial disclosure, conflicts of interest and lobbying.

Lord said up until 2010, local laws had to only be similar. “Similar provided some flexibility,” he said.

In its letter, VOCAL Carroll County says it is advocating for “moral and just principles, policies, and officials in local government.”

“We also believe that the Public has a right to informed oversight of a transparent government. This includes both obligatory and voluntary disclosures by elected officials and candidates to ensure the highest ethical standards and behavior,” the letter reads. “Respectfully, we urge you to strengthen Carroll County’s representative government by swiftly rescheduling the public hearing — originally slated for November 13, 2014 — on proposed changes to Chapter 34, Ethics of the county code and subsequently adopting and enacting a revised ethics ordinance that compliance with Maryland state law, as administered by the State Ethics Commission.”

Early in 2010, the commissioners asked the county's ethics commission to begin drafting changes to the county's ethics ordinance to comply with state requirements. Nearly two years later, under the five-member Board of County Commissioners elected in the fall of 2010 — Robin Barlett Frazier, Haven Shoemaker, Dave Roush, Richard Rothschild and Doug Howard — the draft was approved by the commissioners and sent to the State Ethics Commission. That draft was rejected.

Between the spring of 2012 and early 2014, two other commissioner-approved drafts were sent to the state commission. The third one was approved as being in compliance with the state law.

The two rejected drafts contained provisions that sought to make compromises between what Carroll County officials had wanted and what was required by state law, but the state law made no provision for such compromises.

Lord said it was a long process getting local governments to update their ethics ordinances, and wasn’t something that happened overnight. But, he said, “most of the entities that were required to make changes did it.”

Via email, Lord said there have been several bills offered since 2010 attempting to modify these requirements, and none have been enacted.

The law is clear, he said, and more than seven years following enactment of the 2010 law, all but five jurisdictions have come into compliance.

Primarily, Lord said the state ethics commission encouraged entities to send drafts of what they planned to enact so the commission could make sure it made met requirements before going into law.


“That’s where we have jurisdiction,” he said. “Our jurisdiction ends once they adopt a law.”

Commissioners did not directly address the group’s public comments at Thursday’s meeting.

In an interview with the Times, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said VOCAL’s reminder is jump-starting the commissioners, and it’s time to discuss the ordinance again.

Commissioner President Richard Weaver, R-District 2, agreed. “I’m open to discussing it,” he said.

But not all the commissioners were on board. Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said via email the state’s disclosure requirements enable “irresponsible candidates to hide irresponsible behaviors; and would deter people with successful track records.”

“For example,” Rothschild wrote, “if a Carroll County farmer signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) to discretely test seeds on a 10 acre farmette she owned in Boise, Idaho, she would NOT be able to run for office in Carroll County. That farmer would either (a) have to violate the NDA and be sued; or (b) not disclose the Boise farmette/NDA, and violate state disclosure requirements. Ironically, if the farmer’s political opponent was buried in gambling debts, there would be no disclosure requirement. Simply Stupid.”

But, Lord said via email, the responsibility of the implementation, interpretation and enforcement of the local law is in the hands of the local ethics commission, not the State Ethics Commission.

“Once a local government adopts a compliant ethics law, the State Ethics Commission has no further jurisdiction or authority,” he said. “How a local ethics commission interprets/applies the provisions of the local law is the responsibility of the local commission, which would include determining how to apply the local law.”


Up until recent years, Lord said, the law had always had an enforcement tool — the ability to file a lawsuit against noncompliant jurisdictions.


“[That’s] not our favorite thing to do. We don’t like to initiate a lawsuit,” he said.

But four years ago, the General Assembly enacted a provision that allows the commission to issue a public notice, which basically explains what transpired, he said.

The hope is that it would do a couple of things, Lord said. First, the notice could make the jurisdiction realize they should be in compliance. Or, he said, a group might form as an effort to make the local government take action, something that appears to be happening with VOCAL Carroll County.

“While it’s taken a few years to kind of get to this point, they're doing exactly what the ethics commission hopes would happen so we didn’t have to file suit,” he said.

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