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Westminster moving to comply with state ethics law: ‘Let’s ... get this out of the way’

Nearly a decade after a state law was passed to increase the level of information that elected officials in Maryland’s municipalities must disclose, some Westminster council members took a step toward bringing the city’s ethics laws into compliance.

At the Common Council’s meeting on Monday, council President Gregory Pecoraro and Councilman Tony Chiavacci revealed that they had asked the city’s attorney to draft a new ethics ordinance.

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Michael Lord, executive director of the Maryland State Ethics Commission, is heartened by the idea that Westminster is taking steps toward compliance. He said, “They know what they need to do, and we’re happy they’re looking at it.”

The noncompliance issue traces back to a change in state law in 2010 that went into effect in October 2011. Municipalities, county governments and boards of education were all required to make their ethics requirements more stringent, in alignment with state law, according to previous Times reporting.

The ethics ordinance focuses primarily on issues such as financial disclosure, conflicts of interest and lobbying.

Westminster has, in fact, been operating with an ethics ordinance — but it hasn’t met the state standard. The draft that Chiavacci and Pecoraro brought to the council this week would require more financial disclosures from the city’s elected officials and senior staff.

Chiavacci described the situation as, “We put something together we thought was pretty good and they said it was still not in compliance.”

Chiavacci and Pecoraro, when reached after the meeting, both said the city’s past resistance to changing their ordinance is related to disclosure of property and business interests outside of Westminster and Carroll County.

“[Hypothetically,] does it really matter if we own some kind of property in Virginia or Southern Maryland and we’re running a municipality of 20,000 people up in Carroll County?” Chiavacci asked.

Part of their motivation was not wanting to drive away people from seeking public office because they wouldn’t risk giving up competitive business or personal information in some areas, he said.

Some smaller municipalities were able to get exceptions from all or part of the requirements. Westminster tried in 2012 to get an exception from some of the disclosure requirements, but the state commission denied that request.

Westminster is not alone in resisting the disclosure requirements.

Up until 2017, one county and four municipalities across the state were out of compliance with state law. Three are in Carroll County: Westminster, Mount Airy and Hampstead. The remaining municipality was Gaithersburg.

Carroll County itself was the only of Maryland’s 24 counties or county equivalents (including Baltimore city) whose ordinance was not compliant, though the commission recognized what it considered some good-faith efforts in recent years to address the topic.

In 2017, state ethics laws changed again, and municipalities, counties and school boards across the state became technically out of compliance and many are still working to get their own ethics regulations up to speed, Lord said.

“Little by little, local jurisdictions are coming into compliance,” he said.

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But a key consideration for the state commission is whether a jurisdiction has made any good-faith efforts to bring their ethics ordinance or regulation up to speed, Lord said. For those that haven’t, the State Ethics Commission can issue a public notice.

The commission’s hope is that a public notice “that shines the light on some of their failings,” as well as pressure from constituents who want more disclosure from public officials, will create pressure to remedy the situation on their own.

The public notice for Westminster can be viewed in full at ethics.maryland.gov under “Local Government Public Notices.”

The other, more severe enforcement tool would be for the ethics commission to sue the jurisdiction in question. As far as Lord was aware, the commission has not taken that action. He said it is a messy one.

“Suing a local government in court is not what we want,” he said.

Chiavacci said he was a member of the Westminster Common Council at the time the 2010 law was passed. What brought him around, he said, was seeing current events in Baltimore city where public trust was eroded by political and financial corruption.

“It’s giving politicians a worse reputation to some extent than what we do have already,” he said.

He said his colleagues on the council might be “a little bit surprised that we came out of the clear blue with this.”

As the city embarks on development and downtown projects in the future, he and Pecoraro felt it was best to “bite the bullet ... so there isn’t any question down the road.”

He described the attitude around that ordinance at the time as the city feeling that they were meeting the spirit of what the state wanted when it came to disclosure, but the ethics commission disagreeing. The commission didn’t really have the ability to force the issue, he said.

The motivation to put forth a draft of a new ordinance was that, “It really made sense to not have any questions about how Westminster was complying.”

“Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way,” he said.

Pecoraro said he is excited for two development projects in the city that almost bookend Main Street. The renovation of the old BB&T bank into administrative offices will improve working conditions for city staff and make a better place for citizens to come in and work with city staff. On the opposite end of the street, the Stocksdale property, which the city purchased from the Stocksdale family near the end of 2019, has been for years identified as a key property in the city’s downtown. The city is seeking to hire an advisor to get the word out to developers and move forward on a project that will be a good fit and a business boon to downtown.

The council did not make a formal move to introduce the ordinance Monday. The new ordinance is just a draft at this stage. But the council directed City Attorney Elissa Levan to submit that draft to the ethics commission to make sure it would comply if the council passes it.

Lord said the commission is happy to review drafts of ordinances and encourages municipalities to reach out to them. The commission also crafts model, state-compliant ordinances for which a jurisdiction only needs to plug in the name of their city.

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