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Wack: No transparency issues with Westminster’s ethics ordinance

It was disappointing to read the badly garbled explanation Mayor Joe Dominick offered in his recently published opinion column about Westminster’s Ethics Ordinance. He states that Westminster must pass “an ethics ordinance that includes the disclosures required by the Maryland State government and all of Maryland’s local governments." Good news! We already have.

Dominick states “I am unsure as to why a compliant ethics ordinance has yet to be passed… .”

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Perhaps the issue here is more his ignorance of recent City history, rather than any problems with transparency. So, let’s review.

Modern revisions to Maryland’s ethics law began in 2011 in the aftermath of the Jack Johnson scandal in Prince George’s County. The State Ethics Law (Title 5) specifies, in detail, disclosure and conduct rules for state elected officials, employees, members of appointed commissions, and in our case in Subtitle 8, municipal elected officials.

The municipal section specifies several things (5-807 to 810): municipalities must have an ethics ordinance; that ordinance must address conflicts of interest, financial interests, and lobbying; there must be a local Ethics Commission; the local Ethics Commission must submit annual reports on their activity; local officials must annually disclose all gifts over $20; local officials must disclose, as needed, any known conflicts with a specific issue under consideration; and the local ordinance must be “similar” in the requirements specified in the sections pertaining to state legislators and employees.

Of note, the law specifically gives municipalities the power to adapt local ordinances to local conditions, and does not require annual disclosure (other than gifts). The latitude to make local adjustments springs from the concern that making disclosure too burdensome will discourage people from running for local offices.

The City of Westminster’s efforts to broaden ethics disclosures date back to about 2014, when the City expanded disclosure requirements for elected officials, enlarging the city disclosure form from two pages to 11, and exceeding the requirements outlined in Title 5. For example, the City requires the annual disclosure of “any financial interest …” whereas State law only requires disclosure of financial interests greater than 3%. In contrast, Calvert County’s financial disclosure, deemed compliant by the State Ethics Commission, only requires disclosure of financial interests greater than 30%. Clearly, Westminster’s ordinance is in many ways stricter than what is required by the State and other jurisdictions.

The problem arises from the fact that State law also authorizes the State Ethics commission to create regulations to enforce the law. Unfortunately, the Ethics Commission’s administration of those regulations can only be described as arbitrary and capricious. This is the source of the conflict, not the lack of interest in transparency or disclosure.

Westminster, among several other jurisdictions, challenged the State Ethics Commission about their authority to dictate specifics, and how they determined which jurisdictions got exceptions or modifications, given what is clearly stated in state law. And there are many exceptions and modifications: Prince George’s, Montgomery and Frederick counties all have exceptions in the law, as well as Baltimore City. The aforementioned variation of Calvert County’s 30% threshold for financial interest is another, compared to Westminster’s standard of “any financial interest."

The Ethics Commission has stated that towns with smaller populations or budgets could be exempted, but those numbers aren’t published and the Ethics Commission won’t — or can’t — provide any logical basis for why they selected them.

These contradictions were so significant, the Town of St. Michaels took the problem to referendum, and the local voters exempted the town from compliance by public referendum. The state Ethics Commission had no standing to reverse the will of the voters. In other words, the State Ethics Commission’s authority is not absolute, or even clearly delineated, and state law grants significant authority to both local government and the Commission to define ethics procedures.

The opinion that the City of Westminster is “out of compliance” is merely that, and the Commission declined the opportunity to settle the question in Court. The Commission’s regulatory bullying is what we, “the old guard," objected to and pushed back on, not the need for improved disclosure and transparency.

Mayor Dominick and Councilman Ben Yingling don’t know any of this, because they’ve never taken the time to learn. Skimming news articles or the comments on social media just doesn’t give the same depth of information and nuance that actual experience provides. Instead, they seek to weaponize ethics disclosure as a tool to manipulate the public, embarrass colleagues and avoid the hard work of building consensus.

This is not an empty accusation. When I served on the Council, both of them falsely accused me of financially benefiting from the City grant to MAGIC, a local nonprofit I work with. Rather than debate the merits of that support and defend their ideas, they sought to make unfounded accusations and smear me. I confronted them in front of my colleagues and City staff, and offered to put the matter before the City’s Ethics Commission, which they refused to do.

In summary, Dominick and Yingling’s professed interest in disclosure and transparency is phony posturing. Westminster citizens should pay more attention. I certainly will be.

Robert Wack served 16 years on the Westminster Common Council from 2003-2019, and can be reached at robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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