County to vote to adopt or reject ethics ordinance early next year

Despite pressure to adopt a state-approved county ethics ordinance — which requires candidates for elected positions to disclose all financial information, including that of their children and spouses — the previous Carroll County Board of Commissioners never took action on the legislation, so the task will fall to the newly reconstituted board.

The state-approved draft was presented to the county commissioners in May, but no action has been taken on the legislation, according to Roberta Windham, spokeswoman for the county.


Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, said the previous board was heavily pressured by Tim Burke, the county attorney, to vote to adopt or reject the proposed ethics ordinance before their terms expired after the 2014 election, but due to other priorities, such as the county Master Plan and the budget, they were unable to make a decision.

As the end of the last four-year cycle approached, board members felt they should let the board that would take office after the November election make such an important decision, Howard said.


"There was some strong public sentiment we shouldn't make any major decisions so close to the end [of our term]," he said. "The question became, are we trying to rush to get something done at the last second or are we really trying to make a good decision?"

Though no specific time frame has been set, the board of county commissioners taking office after the election is expected to vote on the proposed ordinance in January, Windham said. Before the commissioners can make a vote, the county must hold a public hearing, she said, but the hearing has not been scheduled yet.

The Maryland General Assembly amended the state's ethics law in 2010 to require local governments to follow the same guidelines that state employees are subject to, said Michael Lord, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

Early in 2010, the board of 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 a board of commissioners elected in the fall of 2010, 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.

Howard, who served on the board whose term expired after the 2014 election and was re-elected to serve another four years after that, said the biggest concern of the last board was the financial disclosure requirements concerning family members. This information is used by state and local jurisdictions to measure the potential for conflicts of interest involving elected officials and candidates.

Howard questioned the relevancy of that information.

"If I was unwilling to reveal that information, would that give the impression I'm not being forthcoming, or is it simply beyond the scope of relevancy?" he said. "If that child is estranged, it could be information we might not even have, but it might be difficult to prove we don't have it."

State officials point out that property owned by spouses, children and others need only be revealed if the person running for office owns that property jointly with the spouse or child.

Howard also said he has no issue with complying with state law, but what the General Assembly laid out was a bit too much.

"I'd like to get [the ordinance] done, but I think we were right to raise the issues that we did," he said.

It's a difficult balancing act between what the people want to know and how they can get it and what is appropriate to be released, Howard said.

"An ethics accusation can be very damaging," he said. "The reason you have a set of parameters is because you want to be able to question things but don't want to tarnish people's reputation. People may never forget the accusation even if it proves to be untrue."

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, agreed with Howard, and said there are elements of the state requirements he considers arguably unconstitutional.

For example, Rothschild said, if a successful business person decides to invest in a shelter for battered women and signs a non-disclosure agreement which makes requires the shelter's location not be revealed, the new ethics laws could potentially force that person to violate the agreement with the shelter organization if the donor chooses to run for political office.

You cannot write a contract after the fact that infringes on an existing civil agreement, he said, and the same rule should apply to the ethics ordinance.

The state's ethics law also acts as a deterrent for people may otherwise be considering running for office, Rothschild said.

The ordinance is supposed to determine where people are vulnerable to compromise, and the best way of determining that possibility is measuring what is owed, not what is owned, he said.

"It penalizes successful people and discourages them from running for office, and it rewards unsuccessful people, giving them a free pass and hides their irresponsible behaviors," he said.

Rothschild said he is hopeful once Gov.-elect Larry Hogan takes office Jan. 21 a different policy will be generated. He says such action would help ensure the county's best people are not discouraged from running for office.

The impetus behind the state's ethics ordinance change was the indictment of Jack B. Johnson, the county executive for Prince George's County, in 2010 on federal charges of extortion as well as witness and evidence tampering; Johnson would later plead guilty and be sentenced to seven years in prison.

Legislators concluded that local officials needed to be held just as accountable as state employees.

The mandated compliance also extends to the eight municipalities in Carroll County. Of the eight, only Mount Airy and Westminster have yet to update their ethics ordinances to comply with state regulations.

Councilman Chris Everich, of Mount Airy, said the town's most recent ordinance, which was approved by the council in October, was recently rejected by the state commission on two grounds. The state requires elected officials and candidates to report on property they own regardless of location, whereas Mount Airy's ordinance states they only need to report properties in the four counties that make up Mount Airy.

"If you're on the take, it would probably show up in the properties you own here," Everich said. "If you own a property in Arizona, that's irrelevant."

Secondly, the state requires elected officials and candidates disclose ownership in any corporation or business no matter how small a piece, while Mount Airy's ordinance states a person only needs to do so if that ownership interest exceeds 5 percent.


"The fundamental problem with the state's ordinance is it greatly discourages candidates from running for office because the reporting requirements are so onerous," Everich said.


If the town of Mount Airy doesn't comply with the state's requirements, the state has the option of suing the town, he said.

"[The state is] trying to apply the same measure of professional politicians to small-town elected officials, who are essentially volunteer politicians, and it doesn't make sense," Everich said.

Lord, with the State Ethics Commission, said even though he has visited several municipalities to explain the requirements, misperceptions still exist.

"If the spouse or children have earnings or property separate of the elected official, they won't have to reveal that information," Lord said. "Property must only be disclosed if it is jointly owned, or if a family member has some interest in the government body; for example, if they are employed by the municipality."

Of the county's remaining six municipalities, Sykesville, Taneytown and Manchester have had updated ordinances approved by the State Ethics Commission.

Union Bridge and New Windsor were granted full exemption from the amendment after applying to the commission because of a variety of factors, all relating to their size, Lord said.

"Consideration for exemption is based on a composite of size factors, not just population but also the number of municipal employees, the size of the budget and the number of functions carried out by the government," he said. "The more they are doing, the less likely they are to get an exemption."

Hampstead and Manchester have both received partial exemptions, but Hampstead has yet to get its ordinance approved.

Howard said requirements imposed by the state have the potential to not only scare away people from running for office, but also could enable those individuals who are under qualified for the positions to get into political office.

"If you make it so hard for people in the right mind to apply for office, you'll only get people in the wrong mind," he said.

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.