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Gordon: For Westminster, better late than never on ethics compliance, election reform | COMMENTARY

As Christmas comes to a close, Christmas cards have been received, meals shared, and gifts have been opened. Some of those gifts were expected, some came as a surprise, and some gifts were a disappointment.

On Dec. 14, residents of Westminster received an early Christmas gift in the form of the city of Westminster adopting Ordinance No. 929 which amended chapter 16 the city’s code of ethics. According to the city’s agenda this adoption of the code of ethics was “to incorporate changes in state law with respect to local ethics ordinances and to broaden the city’s financial disclosure requirements for elected officials and candidates for elective office.”

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This change strengthens the disclosure requirements for Westminster’s elected officials, city department senior staff, and also for candidates in the upcoming 2021 city elections. This ethics ordinance adoption brings the city into compliance with the state of Maryland which has been on the wish list for a long time.

The issue of noncompliance with the state of Maryland has a history that originated a decade ago in 2010, when the state passed stronger ethics requirements into law. The change was made effective a year later in the fall of 2011 and required more stringent ethics ordinances for county governments, municipalities, and boards of education and for them to align with the state law.

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As of 2017, Carroll County was the only county not in compliance, along with four municipalities including the city of Westminster. In the past some of Westminster’s former elected officials have stated that they felt the city was previously compliant. This clearly wasn’t the case as you’re either compliant or you’re not. Arguing this point to claim compliance is like a child arguing they were home by their 10 p.m. curfew it was just that they were home at 10 p.m. Pacific, not Eastern Standard Time. In the fall of 2019 Mayor Joe Dominick published an article stating the need for Westminster to comply with Maryland’s ethics law.

Another gift residents of Westminster received prior to Christmas was the passing of an emergency ordinance this past Monday regarding city elections. The ordinance is to “enhance the efficiency of the conduct of city elections and to strengthen the city’s campaign finance regulations by requiring the appointment of a treasurer, requiring the reporting of all contributions without threshold, increasing a candidate’s reporting requirements, and increasing the fines for certain election-related violations”.

While a positive move forward regarding the election process in Westminster. It is disappointing that this was accomplished in a rushed manner for passage prior to the end of the calendar year. This is not the first time that Westminster has rushed to make changes prior to an upcoming election.

The city needs to follow best practices and mirror other examples of the election process. It is discouraging that Westminster, the county seat founded 256 years ago is just now catching up to some of these practices. The updated election ordinance does not require authority lines on candidates signage or literature. An authority line is required in elections ranging from board of education to county commissioner to governor to president. The authority line clearly states what candidate or group issued the campaign signage or literature. As the county seat Westminster and her public officials should be held to a high standard.

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The city’s board of elections has existed for roughly the past two years. The city clerk and the Westminster board of elections have done a commendable job given the limited time overseeing the newly formed board of elections and are owed a sincere thanks for their hard work.

We are only days away from the New Year, this will include numerous resolutions, potential opportunities, and hope for a better year. The beginning of the New Year will also bring new prospective candidates who will begin filing for the upcoming 2021 election. The residents will have to decide who they will back as an array of candidates vie for two open council seats and mayor.

Tom Gordon writes from Westminster. He writes every other Saturday. Email him at tgordonwrites@gmail.com

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