Wilson and Rehrmann erase barriers to passage of his ethics bill Tuesday


As the clock ticks away the last weeks of his term, Harford County Council President Jeffrey Wilson says he and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann have hammered out compromises that clear the way for passage Tuesday of his mammoth ethics bill for county employees, volunteer board members and lobbyists.

In a meeting Thursday, the two discussed several tentative compromises. Mrs. Rehrmann said Friday that she will support the bill with the compromise amendments.

"I thought the meeting went very well," she said.

Mr. Wilson has said he wants to leave the legislation, which would strictly define ethical standards and financial disclosure requirements for county employees and elected officials, as his "legacy" to Harford County.

"We still have some fine-tuning to do, but I think we have reached substantial agreement on the policy issues," he said, with the deadline for passage only days away. "There was a lot of good will on both sides."

Mr. Wilson said attorneys for both sides were ironing out the language of the 38-page bill that, at last count, had nearly 50 potential amendments awaiting consideration by council members. He said he felt the bill had adequate support from the council even before the compromise talks, but he did not want it to be enacted by a close vote.

"This is landmark legislation. When we do legislation of this importance, I don't want the executive branch to be unhappy about it," he said.

The last comprehensive revision of the county's ethics law was in 1981.

Mr. Wilson's bill, introduced in August, would expand the pool of individuals subject to financial disclosure, expand the circle of family members who could be sources of improper influence, set a maximum value on gifts employees could accept, stiffen lobbyists' registration requirements and increase the types of situations in which conflicts of interest could exist.

The bill is based on a model ethics law published by the Maryland Commission on Ethics and by a law that covers state employees, the president said.

However, after complaints from volunteer members of advisory boards and others at a public hearing on the bill last month, Mr. Wilson introduced more than a dozen amendments that would lessen the impact on some individuals.

His early amendments would substantially reduce financial disclosure requirements for unpaid members of county advisory boards and commissions, reduce the County Council's authority over the ethics board and limit the types of situations in which a conflict of interest might exist.

In addition, Councilwoman Susan Heselton proposed raising the limit on gifts one could accept without disclosing them from $25 to $50.

Mrs. Rehrmann said the administration found some of the definitions in the bill too restrictive. She particularly objected to including family members besides spouses and children among those who could present conflicts of interest.

She also objected to the depth into the ranks of county employees the bill would reach, requiring deputy directors of departments to make financial disclosures.

The administration and some council members also felt the bill went too far in prohibiting former officials and employees from profiting in private service from experience gained while they were county employees. "We didn't want to discourage people from coming to work for Harford County, which the law would do if it made it difficult for them to get a job in the private sector later," she said.

Mr. Wilson wanted to increase the current one-year "waiting period" to four years before someone could work on the same issue as a private sector employee that he did as a county employee.

"That four-year restriction could drive former county employees out of the county for jobs," said Councilman Barry Glassman, R-District D.

Two weeks ago, Philip Barker, D-District F, with apparent administration support, crafted 20 amendments, some of which would have substantially watered down the bill. Many would have returned the language to its form in the 1981 law.

Some amendments echoed administration objections, including the exclusion of nonprofit organizations as "business entities" covered under the law.

"I just felt that the ethics law we have now has been effective," Mr. Barker said early last week. "Although it could use some refinement, it doesn't have to be overhauled."

Mr. Barker's proposed changes were never brought before the council for discussion, as Mr. Wilson continued to buy time from council members for "consensus building."

After Thursday's meeting with Mr. Wilson, Mrs. Rehrmann agreed that most of the administration's "key concerns" had been resolved, and Mr. Barker said he was willing to withdraw most of his amendments if the executive and council president had reached agreement.

Mr. Wilson expects the withdrawal of some of the pending amendments, the redrafting of others and the creation of still others when the bill is submitted in final form for a vote Tuesday. Among the more controversial areas in which preliminary compromise was reached:

* Establishment of three levels of prohibition for former officials and employees who, as private employees, now want to deal with the county government. The law would more severely restrict a person who wanted to work on a specific project he had dealt with as a county employee than someone who had not been in a policy-making role. The four-year waiting period could be reduced through a waiver process involving the board of ethics.

* Maintaining a more inclusive definition of family for conflict of interest cases, but limit the size of an employee's family covered by the requirement to disclose gifts from lobbyists. Mrs. Rehrmann said the language would more closely resemble the state ethics law, which is less definitive than Mr. Wilson's proposal.

* Raising the cumulative value of gifts that a lobbyist may give an individual to at least $50 before it must be disclosed.

* Including deputy directors, who have key decision-making responsibilities, among those who must make financial disclosures.

* Excluding advisory board members from financial disclosure requirements except where a financial matter may relate to one's role on the board.

Mr. Wilson said the drafters are still fine-tuning language on under what circumstances one can receive honorariums for making outside appearances as a public official.

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