January 4, 2012 •
Last year, Maryland’s legislature passed a public ethics law, Title 15, after finding an erosion of public confidence in government decisions due to improper influence.
Title 15 requires government officials and employees to disclose their financial affairs and sets minimum ethical standards for the conduct of state and local business. The law also requires all counties, municipalities, and school boards adopt ethics standards at least equal to the state’s ethics law with regard to conflicts of interest, financial disclosure, and lobbying. Each local ethics commission is required to certify its compliance with the Maryland Ethics Commission on or before October 1st of each year, beginning in 2011.
Some local officials are still working toward agreement and passage of the required bills. Although officials may follow the state’s guidelines, many are choosing their own paths. For instance, the registration thresholds for lobbyists in Title 15 include an expenditure clause and a gift clause: $500 in expenditures towards influencing legislative or executive action; or $100 in gifts for the purpose of influencing executive action. The recently passed Charles County bill has a $100 gift threshold, while Alleghany County’s gift threshold is $200. Neither bill includes an expenditure clause. However, in Howard County, there is a $100 expenditure threshold for any lobbying activity, but no gift threshold.
Conflict of interest rules have also been the subject of debate. Title 15 forbids former public officials (other than legislators) and employees from assisting or representing a party in a contract or other specific matter for compensation if the former official or employee participated significantly in the matter as an official or employee. Frederick County attempted to limit this prohibition to one year for former commissioners with an exemption for former employees. This modification was rejected by the state. The Frederick County delegation now plans to propose changes to Title 15 before the general assembly to allow the one year limitations.
Counties such as Baltimore and Montgomery continue to debate and, as of December 1, 2011, had yet to approve a final version of the required ethics bill.
In the latest development, the State Ethics Commission met to respond to exemption requests. According to the Maryland Municipal League web site:
“The Maryland State Ethics Commission met on December 8 to consider a number of exemption requests from various municipalities around the state. Several jurisdictions were requesting an extension of an existing exemption, while some cities and towns were requesting new exemptions from the recently enacted financial disclosure reporting requirement. The results were varied, although it seemed as though population and budget size were the criteria most often cited by the members of the Ethics Commission when exemptions were being considered. For more information, please contact Tom Reynolds or Candace Donoho on the MML staff.”
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