When Jack B. Johnson, the county executive for Prince George's County, was indicted in 2010 on federal charges shortly before pleading guilty to extortion along with witness and evidence tampering, legislators realized that local officials needed to be held just as accountable as state employees.
Though changes made to the requirements for local governments — including counties, municipalities and school boards — are mandatory, some municipalities in Carroll County have been reluctant to pass a new ethics ordinance.
At the most recent Mount Airy Town Council meeting, a revised ethics ordinance was passed with the provision that a member of the public requesting personal financial information of an elected official would receive said information from the affected official rather than town offices.
Councilman Scott Strong said he would feel more comfortable giving the information out personally rather than hearing through the grapevine that someone had come in requesting it.
Chris Everich, a member of the Mount Airy Town Council, said he was not thrilled the council was forced to meet these more strict requirements.
"The amendment that was forced down our throat is directed toward elected officials," Everich said. "From what I understand, [all municipalities] were upset and trying to fight this but eventually surrendered."
At the meeting, Everich voted against the ethics ordinance because it doesn't fit with a small town, he said.
"The disclosure requirements were onerous," Everich said. "The disclosure applies not only to the person in office, but also their spouse and their children. It's inappropriate for a municipality on our level, and it's a real discouragement for prospective elected officials."
The General Assembly amended the state's ethics laws 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.
These guidelines include lobby laws, more strict financial disclosure rules and conflict-of-interest provisions.
Along with Mount Airy, Westminster has not had an updated ethics ordinance approved by the state commission.
Robert Wack, common council president for the city of Westminster, said the new requirements outlined by the state are much more strict than the ethics ordinance the city had. Before the amendment, their ordinance was working fine, he said.
Since 2010, the mayor and common council have submitted multiple drafts to gain approval, but so far, have not been able to come to complete agreement with the state.
"We've been playing ping pong with them for a couple years now," Wack said. "We will be resubmitting a new draft very soon and will continue to work with the state to get something we both agree on."
The area of most concern pertains to the requirement for elected officials to disclose all personal financial information, Wack said, as well that of their spouse and perhaps even their children.
"The potential to scare away candidates in the future is a real and serious problem," he said. "The council is all over the place with different opinions."
Lord said even though he has visited several municipalities to explain the amendment 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. Carroll County government also had an updated ordinance reviewed by the state, but has not yet adopted the new ordinance, according to spokeswoman Roberta Windham.
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 a partial exemption, but Hampstead has yet to get its ordinance approved.
Sykesville Mayor Ian Shaw said that when the Town Council was debating the new requirements set by the State Ethics Commission, he thought that state legislators' having to disclose that amount of information would prevent them from exempting smaller jurisdictions.
"It's a tough thing to go back and ask them not to require that of us and not expect them to want the same thing," Shaw said.
There were some concerns from the council, he said, but eventually the council agreed with him. The town's existing ethics ordinance was very close to what the state required.
Shaw said he did agree with Everich and Wack, that the financial disclosure stipulation might be considered too intrusive for potential candidates. When the state was dealing with the aftermath and repercussions of Johnson's ethical violations, it went from one extreme, which set very few requirements for local governments, to another, he said.
"Hopefully big government will understand and refine the law to make it more palatable to smaller jurisdictions," Shaw said. "If they see the challenges we are facing, we may get some leeway about disclosing our kid's possessions."
Lord said the commission has reviewed more than 100 ethics ordinances from counties, municipalities and school boards since the law was enacted. Approval by the state commission alone, however, does not meet state requirements. Each local government that gains approval must then enact the ordinance.
"We would encourage folks to call us if they have questions and if they have any misunderstandings or questions," Lord said. "We at the State Ethics Commission are happy to help."
Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information
With questions regarding the requirements set by the state, call the State Ethics Commission at 410-260-7770.