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Baltimore’s revamped ethics board says it’s ready to provide guidance to city employees

Baltimore’s long underutilized Board of Ethics began issuing advisory opinions for the first time in three years in 2021 and has seen its web traffic triple, according to the group’s annual report published this week.

The report, which is itself the first annual recap from the board since 2014, details a restructuring of the Board of Ethics since it was moved under the umbrella of the Office of the Inspector General — a move that became effective last October.

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Since then, the Board of Ethics has been staffed by a full-time director and administrative assistant who established an ethics hotline and revamped the city’s ethics training process for city employees and elected officials, according to the report.

The Baltimore City Board of Ethics is responsible for collecting and managing financial and lobbying disclosure forms as well as making determinations about potential violations of the city’s ethics law and conflicts of interest.

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The majority of questions fielded by the board in fiscal year 2021 were about the financial disclosure process required of all city elected officials and about 3,000 of the city’s 13,000 employees. More than 1,500 requests were fielded via the newly established hotline in 2021 — 1,100 of which were related to disclosure questions, according to the report. The remainder were queries about ethics guidance, lobbying and gift solicitation. Most were handled by the board’s staff.

Matters that required a more formal opinion were weighed by the board itself, a five-member body that currently has four members. Five advisory opinions were issued in 2021 on issues including the rental of office space to city officials, recusal rules and secondary employment restrictions for city employees, according to the report. No identifying information for subject employees or city officials were included in the opinions.

Training for city employees also was overhauled in 2021. A new electronic pamphlet was created about the city’s ethics law and distributed to city boards, commissions and agencies, according to the report. A newly produced video introduction to the law will be included in new city employees’ orientation.

During 2021, rules also were tightened regarding financial and lobbying disclosures, the report states. An additional 800 employees were added to the list of employees who must submit annual financial disclosure forms. And the board began charging late fees to lobbyists who failed to file annual registration forms on time “for the first time in recent memory,” according to the report.

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Jeff Hochstetler, director of the Board of Ethics, said this week he was pleased with the body’s progress during the last year.

“I think the report shows that across the many areas of responsibility, the board has improved its processes and really just gotten word out there that it is available for consultation,” he said. “We would like to play a big preventative role, be it ethics training or requests for advice and guidance.”

In the coming years, Hochstetler said he would like to further streamline the city’s financial disclosure system and better integrate its data with other city systems to find potential conflicts of interest before they happen.

Changes made in 2021 also included an overhaul of the Board of Ethics website to increase outreach by the board. The website received 35,000 unique pageviews in 2021 compared to fewer than 11,000 in 2020, the report states.

“Once people know we’re here and dedicated to the work, more people end up coming forward,” Hochstetler said. “We’re making ourselves available.”

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