Wilson answers critics, amends his ethics bill


Harford County Council President Jeffrey Wilson has introduced amendments to his proposed ethics bill in a effort to reach a compromise with county officials and angry volunteers who object to making broad financial disclosures.

The bill, which the lame-duck president has called his "legacy" to the county, would tighten and strictly define ethical standards and financial disclosure requirements for public officials and county employees.

The last comprehensive revision of the law was in 1981, "and the county and county government have changed substantially since then," Mr. Wilson said at a public hearing before Thursday's council meeting.

Among other things, the revised law would increase the types of situations that could present conflicts of interest. It also would substantially increase the pool of individuals subject to financial disclosure requirements, to include more than 50 members of advisory boards and commissions -- many of them volunteers.

The latter provision alone drew several people to Thursday's hearing.

Nick Fiore, chairman of the county's Personnel Advisory Board, said the proposal "goes overboard" in trying to legislate ethics.

"My finances have nothing to do with my role on the board," he said. "I support an ethics bill that is reasonable, but you can't legislate ethics any more than morality."

Patricia Masserelli, chairman of the Board of Library Trustees, said that board unanimously objected to a broad financial disclosure statement as an invasion of privacy. She noted that, in trying to fill a vacancy last year, the board encountered difficulty finding people "willing to give the time and commitment" required of trustees, and prying into their personal finances, she said, would put them off even more.

But Mr. Wilson said one of the eight amendments he proposed Thursday should allay some fears of volunteers because it would limit the disclosures required of nonpolicy-makers. People serving on advisory boards would have to disclose only information about interests, gifts, employment and indebtedness directly relating to their work on the boards, he said.

"I am sensitive to the fact that we need to have citizens come forward and participate on these boards," Mr. Wilson said.

Another amendment would limit gifts and personal debts that an employee must disclose to items or debts involving individuals with whom the county does business or who are regulated by the county.

Other amendments would keep the ethics board at three members. The members would be appointed by the county executive and approved by the County Council.

One resident at the hearing questioned whether the ethics code must include financial disclosure about relatives' finances and whether that would dissuade people from county service. The bill expands the list of family members who could be the source of conflicts of interest to include parents, siblings and in-laws, as well as spouses and children.

Some council members have questioned the proposed $25 limit on the value of gifts that could be accepted by employees, saying that it is too low. District A Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton has said she would introduce an amendment to raise the limit to $50.

"An ethics law is a kind of posting of the political highway," Mr. Wilson said at the hearing. "It's there so that reasonable people have some kind of guidelines to follow."

Larry Klimovitz, the county's administrative director, said the administration was willing to work with Mr. Wilson on refining the bill, but that he would reserve further comment until the public hearing was concluded. The hearing on the ethics bill is to continue Tuesday night. It was extended because Thursday's council meeting fell during Yom Kippur. Voting on the amendments also was held over.

In other business Thursday, the council held a public hearing on a package of bills that would provide property tax credits to Harford County historic landmarks. A tax credit equaling 10 percent of the cost of restoration would be granted for any property designated as a historic landmark by the county's Historic Preservation Commission.

In addition, a property tax credit would be allowed for the added value created when a historic landmark is restored. The owner could receive that credit for up to five years.

Katy Dallam of the Historic Preservation Commission said there are 23 historic landmarks in the county, nine of which are private properties. She stressed that the legislation is unrelated to homes on the National Register, where requirements for qualification are less stringent than for county-designated landmarks.

"It's very hard to be approved as a Harford County landmark," she assured citizens who questioned whether the tax credit was just another tax break for the rich.

Another bill would establish buffer requirements for development properties adjacent to county-designated historic landmarks. The Historic Preservation Commission would recommend the required widths and landscaping of the buffers, and the Department of Planning and Zoning would have approval powers over them.

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