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“The enacted definitions adversely affect the level of transparency that allows the citizens of Westminster to evaluate potential conflicts of interest for their local elected officials.” —State ethics commission on the city’s interest and gift disclosures.

The state ethics commission sent the City of Westminster a letter in October of 2015 explaining in detail the five areas in which the city was not compliant. We as an elected body have taken no action to correct these compliance issues, and it has been four years.

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I am going to do my best to summarize the issues the state ethics commission has with our current ethics ordinance, but I will also be making available the link to our letter of noncompliance so that our residents can read and interpret it themselves.

1. The state ethics commission determined that section §16-2 of our ethics ordinance has definitions for both “Interest” and “Gift” that are too weak, and don’t provide our taxpayers enough information to properly evaluate our conflict of interest. They also determined that our ethics ordinance was missing a definition for “Financial Interest.”

2. While section §16-4(B) of our ethics ordinance does address employment with or financial interest in entities that do business with the city, the state ethics commission holds the city non-compliant because it does not address entities that fall under the authority of the elected official or employee.

3. Maryland’s Public Ethics Law requires city officials to disclose all real property, regardless of where it is located. Section §16-5(1)(A) of our current ordinance limits that to real property that is within city limits or has some “nexus to an individual or entity that have done business with the City within the preceding 5 years.”

4. Section §16-5(E)(2)(a) states that we must disclose interest in businesses that are regulated by, is currently doing business with, or has done business with the city in the last 5 years. State law requires that we disclose any business interest regardless of its relationship with, or nexus to the city. Conflict can be complex. The residents of Westminster deserve to know where interests and possible conflicts exist.

While the scope of this type of disclosure is greatly narrowed by the language in our ordinance, it is true that our required disclosures cover any level of interest, not just over 3% the state law requires. Having a 3% minimum isn’t necessary when the scope of our disclosures is narrowed to the extent that it is. If we extended our disclosures to cover all business interest, we’d probably have to implement a 3% minimum so that we wouldn’t run into the issue of having to make hundreds or even thousands of disclosures due to 401(k) accounts, 529 college savings accounts, and other mutual and index funds that are held in large pools and managed by fiduciaries and investment companies. The companies within these accounts change often. The 3% minimum makes perfect sense when you’re actually disclosing what the state law requires.

5. Section §16-5(E)(2)(b)(iii) of our city’s ethics ordinance addresses the transfer of an official’s interest in a business to or from another individual or entity. Our ordinance limits our disclosures to include transfers only when the individuals or entities involved do business with or have a regulatory relationship with the city. Again, conflicts of interest can be complicated and have multiple layers which make our city’s non-compliant limitations problematic.

The biggest issue with our current ethics ordinance is the geographical limitation of individuals or entities having to be within the city or having done business with the city during the preceding 5 years. The scope is too narrow. Conflicts often have multiple layers and the city government does a lot of business outside of city limits. The disclosures must be broadened to compliant standards in order for our electorate to determine where conflicts could exist.

The bottom line is our city’s ethics ordinance is not compliant for a reason. The state ethics commission didn’t create these rules to be burdensome. The commission created them to force sufficient transparency and to create a baseline for municipalities like the city of Westminster to us a minimum. The State Ethics Law should be where we start.

If you are reading this and trying to decide where you stand on this issue, I would like you to think about something. The City of Westminster, its elected officials, and various levels of staff are tasked with administering and enforcing many laws and regulations. Some of these include zoning regulations, property codes, water allocations, etc. Some are more serious like those our police department enforces which include laws governing violent, part 1 crime. Everyone in the city is expected to follow these laws and regulations. If they don’t, they face consequences.

We, your elected officials shouldn’t get to decide which laws apply to us. There are larger governing bodies to which we must answer. The state passed the Public Ethics Law, and our city’s officials should follow it. I would like to thank Councilman Ben Yingling for his support on this issue.

The State Ethics Commission’s letter can be found at: https://ethics.maryland.gov.

Joe Dominick is the mayor of Westminster.

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