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Westminster approves strict ethics code, calls for thorough financial disclosures

Westminster’s new code of ethics more closely resembles the state’s, but its requirements for disclosing financial information makes it a little more strict.

The city approved the amended code Monday night. But its history for change started a decade ago when state law 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.

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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.

According to the approved ordinance, the goal for the alterations is to increase transparency within the government and ensure integrity among city officials.

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The common areas where Westminster’s ordinances differed from the state’s are the city’s requirement to limit the disclosure of real property interests to property located in the city or obtained from persons doing business with the city; to limit the required disclosure of business interests to entities doing business with the city; to limit the disclosure of family members’ employment to employment with the city or with an entity regulated by or doing business with the city; and to limit disclosure of indebtedness to entities that do business with or is regulated by the city.

“The proposed ordinance has been expanded to remove those limitations,” meeting documents state.

Now, for example, a person filing for candidacy must disclose real property located anywhere and not only in the city.

The ethics commission met Oct. 15 to discuss the proposed ordinance and some members questioned that alteration.

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Member Daniel Hoff questioned how disclosing vacation property was “relevant to their service.”

“If I were running for office and looking at this, it would give me a little bit of a pause,” Hoff said about the ordinance at the time.

He said later that he understands disclosing property a person is currently in or within the same municipality. “But the fact that I own a property in Pennsylvania, I don’t see how that has any relevance to, you know, my service as a council person,” he said.

“Seems to me that if it mirrors the state ordinance, we’re kind of stuck with it,” said Damian Halstad, member of the commission.

Elisa Levan, the city attorney, said during a Nov. 9 mayor and common council meeting a previous council’s ordinance had disagreements with state law and they were at odds with the state about it for over 10 years.

Halstad said during the Oct. 15 ethics commission meeting he would not run if he had to report everything the ordinance calls for. He said the city should have continued fighting with the state for some of the disclosure requirements.

Levan said fighting with the state could have “adverse media consequences” and there could be implications they are doing something underhanded or unethical.

Halstad said what’s done is done and they will have to see how much the requirements deter business people from running for mayor or City Council.

Staff was told to add new actions that go beyond the state’s ordinance when it comes to disclosures by appointed officials like the city administrator, city attorney and certain department heads with responsibilities related to public procurements.

“These changes are designed to promote transparency in the award of contracts and to protect the city’s interests in the impartiality and loyalty of key employees,” meeting documents stated.

The proposed ordinance was sent to the state’s ethics commission for review and was approved in August. Westminster’s ethics commission reviewed the ordinance and recommended its own changes related to disclosures by key employees.

“These changes do not impact provisions required by state law and ought not to impact the state ethics commission’s approval,” a meeting document stated.

“I think we’ve got now a better product,” Gregory Pecoraro, president of Westminster’s Common Council, said at the Nov. 9 meeting. “At this time, we should get it introduced.”

Said Levan: “I can assure you with some confidence this will not be a problem with the state ethics commission.”

The common council approved the ordinance Monday.

In an effort to support local businesses, the board approved allocating $5,000 in gift cards for local restaurants to city employees. They also approved nearly $25,000 to Westminster police for the purchase and installment of video surveillance equipment in the city park, Locust Lane Plaza and the unit blocks of East and West Main Street.

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