Editorial: Well beyond time to revisit ethics ordinance

Carroll County governments, it seems, have an issue with ethics. There are 23 counties, one independent city, 157 municipalities and 24 school boards in the state of Maryland. Of these, all but five have either passed ethics laws or are working with the state to pass ethics laws that are in compliance with 2010 legislation that required ethics ordinances at least as strong as the ones required of state elected officials.

Of the five, Carroll County government and the municipalities of Westminster, Hampstead and Mount Airy make up four of them. Gaithersburg is the other.


Two of the municipalities, Westminster and Mount Airy, have passed ethics ordinances that the state found did not pass muster. Hampstead has not passed any such ordinance. Carroll County government actually came close to passing an ordinance in 2014, under the previous Board of County Commissioners. A draft of that ordinance was approved by the state commission in February 2014, but a public hearing scheduled for November of that year was canceled in order to kick the can to the incoming, now current, board.

Three years later, the current board has brought up the policy a few times, but has yet to take any action. It’s long past time for the sitting county commissioners to revisit the 2014 ordinance and get stronger ethics laws on the book in Carroll County.

Most of the pushback seems to center around issues like financial disclosure, conflicts of interest and lobbying.

Some have argued the requirements are too onerous, and will limit the number of good candidates willing to run for office. We’re not sure that’s true. Again, these are the same requirements that are in place for candidates to run for state office, and there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of candidates there.

Beyond that, the public has a right to know of any potential conflicts of interests local officials might have with companies government does business with. If it turns out an elected official’s brother works for a local construction company, for example, should that official be allowed to vote to award a road paving contract to that company?

Stronger ethics laws seek to prevent conflicts of interest like this and other potential backroom dealings.

Commissioners heard from a grassroots group calling themselves VOCAL Carroll County on Nov. 16, calling for the board to act swiftly to reschedule a public hearing on the ethics ordinance that the state signed off on in 2014, and adopting and enacting the ordinance before the next election.

“We also believe that the Public has a right to informed oversight of a transparent government. This includes both obligatory and voluntary disclosures by elected officials and candidates to ensure the highest ethical standards and behavior,” a letter from the group reads.

There seems to be some willingness on behalf of the sitting members of the current board to get into compliance, but response did not seem enthusiastic.

The winter months tend to be a bit slower for the county commissioners, prior to gearing up for the budget season. We see no reason why the board couldn’t dust off the 2014 ordinance that had state approval, make updates as necessary, and schedule a public hearing in a fairly quick manner, unless they simply don’t want to.

Until they do, we encourage the public to continue to be, well, vocal, about stronger ethics in county government.