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Our View: Past time for Carroll County municipalities to comply with state ethics laws

Somewhat out of left field, two Westminster council members said at the most recent meeting of the Mayor and Common Council that they had asked the city’s attorney to draft a new ethics ordinance to bring the city’s ethics laws into compliance with the state’s Public Ethics Law. An ordinance is expected to be introduced Jan. 27, at Westminster’s next meeting.

We’re heartened by this development as we are, of course, all for transparency, impartiality and independent judgment in government. As we’ve written in this space before, the public has a right to know of any potential conflicts of interests local officials might have with companies the government does business with.

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Still, we have no idea why this has taken so long.

This has been an issue since a change in state law went into effect in October 2011 requiring municipalities, county governments and boards of education to make their ethics requirements more stringent, in alignment with state law. Westminster expanded its disclosures in an attempt to get into compliance, but the Maryland State Ethics Commission posted a public notice on Oct. 5, 2015 noting that the city “has not complied with and has not made good faith efforts toward compliance” with the ethics law. The candidates in last spring’s municipal election expressed a desire to bring the city into compliance. Mayor Joe Dominick twice wrote opinion pieces for the Times in 2019 about his frustration with the city’s inaction.

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“In order for us as elected officials to properly and effectively handle what’s facing us, we have to be transparent and trusted by our electorate. In order to move our city forward ... we must first fix the foundation. Progress on this matter starts with passing an ethics ordinance that includes the disclosures required by the Maryland State government and all of Maryland’s local governments," Dominick wrote in August.

While recent changes mean that, technically, numerous municipalities in Maryland are out of compliance, only four have never come into compliance. And three — Westminster, Mount Airy and Hampstead — are in Carroll, with Montgomery County municipality Gaithersburg rounding out the quartet. The public notice for Westminster as well as for the others can be viewed in full at ethics.maryland.gov under “Local Government Public Notices.”

Long-serving Westminster councilmen Tony Chiavacci and Gregory Pecoraro brought forward at Monday’s meeting a draft of an ethics ordinance that would require more financial disclosures from the city’s elected officials and senior staff. Disclosures have been a sticking point in the past and Chiavacci asked, hypothetically, Monday, “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?”

Perhaps, to many, it doesn’t. Perhaps it shouldn’t. But that sort of information does matter to the ethics commission.

And just as Westminster residents have to follow local ordinances or risk punishment — even if they question whether such ordinances have merit — so, too, should elected officials be required to comply with the regulations established for the state. As Dominick wrote, “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.”

Chiavacci said he came around on the issue after seeing public trust eroded by corruption in Baltimore. Pecoraro said he felt as if Westminster was complying anyway, so it "made sense to not have any questions about how Westminster was complying.” Regardless of why it has taken so long, we are glad Dominick pushed for compliance and that Chiavacci and Pecoraro proactively asked the city attorney to draft an ordinance.

We are hopeful that Westminster officials will introduce, discuss, tweak and pass an ethics ordinance that not only complies with, but exceeds, state regulations. And that Mount Airy and Hampstead will follow suit.

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