The Howard County Council is considering an update to its ethics laws, including dropping requirements that members from 12 county boards and commissions have to file financial disclosure statements.
Howard County’s Ethics Commission, which recommended the boards and commissions to be allowed out of the requirements, found that the disclosures were unnecessary for these groups because they lacked significant regulatory and financial authority, according to Executive Secretary Beverly Heydon.
Some members, Heydon said, often left the forms largely blank, only filling out the portion that disclosed their employment.
The bill, introduced last month by the council chairwoman, would allow members of a dozen boards and commissions, including the Agricultural Land Preservation Board, the Equal Opportunity Business Commission, the Economic Development Authority, the Pension Oversight Commission and the Human Rights Commission to opt out of submitting annual financial disclosure statements.
Howard County has more than 40 boards and commissions that advise and oversee widespread county responsibilities, ranging from plumbing to building design and property tax assessment. Members advise county staff on issues and can recommend legislation, budget items and policy changes.
Members apply for the advisory positions and must be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the County Council.
Currently, board and commission members from 22 groups must disclose employment and possible conflict of interests related to the board’s activities as part of an annual financial disclosure statement. Potential conflicts could include if a board member’s employer or company comes under review by the board.
One hypothetical, said County Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, could be if a property manager served on the county’s Human Rights Commission, and their property came under scrutiny by the commission for unfair housing practices. In such a case, knowing the member’s employment information would be crucial.
At a council meeting earlier this month, Heydon said the ethics commission narrowed the list of entities required to submit financial disclosure forms based on which groups had “regulatory authority” in a hearing process or to grant or revoke a license as well as if the board or commission made significant recommendations related to financial interests.
In reviewing the boards and commissions, Heydon said the Ethics Commission did not speak directly to any members or the groups but based its decision on information on board or commission website pages and recent meeting minutes.
Council members Calvin Ball, Jen Terrasa and Sigaty expressed concern with the idea to allow so many boards and commissions out of financial disclosure requirements, hampering public information needs.
“I think we should just have everybody sign something. This is sort of a transparency issue,” Terrasa said. “It’s only in relation to the duties of that board, so if you have conflicts as relates to the board, you should be prepared to report those.”
Sigaty said she hopes to have a more detailed discussion with commission members at the council’s next work session to determine if the county should require all boards and commission to file disclosures or if there should be codified criteria to determine which groups can be excluded based on their regulatory authority.
“I understand that we’d like to have enough information from a good government perspective, but at what point does that information aid good government?” Sigaty said.
The bill also includes changes to the county’s ethics laws that are required as a result of updates to the state’s ethics laws that passed last year, including greater limits on how soon former lawmakers can work as lobbyists and the requirement to redact home addresses from disclosure forms before public view.
The county’s proposed legislation would prohibit former elected officials from lobbying for outside groups for compensation in matters subject to county legislation. This could include issues such as lease agreements and public private partnerships.
Emily Scarr, state director for the nonprofit citizen advocacy group Maryland Public Interest Research Group, said the new restrictions on lobbying are a step in the right direction.
“It’s smart to stop the revolving door of people going from elected officials to lobbyists,” Scarr said. “It’s important that there’s a clear separation between lawmakers and lobbyists and to ensure there’s no appearance of corruption or actual corruption, especially in our current political climate where people mistrust their government.”
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Changes mandated by the state must be made by Oct. 1. The council chose to separate those changes from the financial disclosure requirements, in order to allow more time to review the elective changes.