Anne Arundel County’s coronavirus recovery effort will no longer be called “Build Back Better” after the Ethics Commission decided that it can be seen as support for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who uses the same slogan.
The commission wrote there is no evidence County Executive Steuart Pittman adopted this slogan in support Biden’s campaign for president. But that “by maintaining continued use of the slogan ‘Build Back Better’ on the county website, citizens of this county may reasonably assume that the county is supporting the Biden candidacy for President, or at the very least be confused.”
Pittman began using the slogan in April, and it is unclear when the Biden campaign adopted it. Pittman, a delegate for Biden at the Democratic National Convention, was asked about the slogan similarities during an Aug. 18 call with the news media.
He chuckled when reflecting on the similarities, but didn’t think there were any issues because he believed he used it first. Two days later, the commission issued its finding.
The Biden campaign did not return a request for comment.
Even if Pittman was first, the commission’s opinion states most residents might still perceive it as support from the county for a political candidate. The commission said the similarities between the two campaigns were not the only examples of the use of “Build Back Better.”
County employees are not allowed to use the prestige of office or any county resources, including the website, for personal gain or for the gain of another person, under the county ethics law
The ethics commission is an independent agency tasked with oversight and administration of public ethics law in county government. It is made up of seven members, who are either nominated by the council or appointed by the county executive. According to the ethics commission website, no more than four of the seven members may be from the same political party.
Neither Emerson C. Davis, commission chairman, nor Michael S. Botsaris, director of the commission, could be reached for comment Tuesday. It was the fifth opinion posted by the commission this year.
Though the ethics commission acknowledged that the slogan has been used by a variety of other groups and is not unique to Biden or Pittman, because of the timing, they had to ask “whether a reasonable person was likely to get the impression that by using the same phrase, with similar graphics, the county was supporting the Biden campaign and agenda.”
Pittman called the email “curious” in a call with reporters Tuesday morning but said he will comply with the recommendation to stop using the slogan. His biweekly town halls, which were previously referred to as episodes of “Build Back Better,” will now just be called “Tuesday night,” he said.
The ethics commission looked into the slogans after receiving inquiries from county councilmembers and residents about whether the use of the slogan, portrayed with similar graphics, was a violation of the ethics code, the commission wrote.
The commission decided even the appearance of a conflict of interest could damage trust in county officials. The county should stop using the slogan and remove it from the county website to avoid even the appearance of partisan politics or support of a presidential candidate, the commission wrote.
When reached Tuesday, Council Chair Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie, said she had not previously heard the ethics commission was looking into this or had issued an opinion. Council Vice-Chair Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup, said that she previously noted that Biden and Pittman had the same slogan, but didn’t think it would be a problem since she thought Pittman had used his first.
It remains unclear who filed the complaint. Councilman Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, Councilwoman Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis, Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, Councilwoman Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, and Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.