UPDATED (2:38 p.m.)—Proposed changes to Baltimore County ethics laws will limit the ability of employees to lobby on matters they worked on, bar them from accepting gifts and clarify conflict of interest rules.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced proposed major revisions of the nearly 30-year old ethics laws and issued an executive order governing the conduct of 8,000 county employees during a Wednesday news conference in Towson.
"I believe we've had generations of men and women who have served the people of Baltimore County with great distinction, but I also recognize that we have a responsibility to live up to their legacy and to serve the people of the county with the honor and dignity I know they expect and deserve," Kamenetz said.
The county executive also announced the signing of an executive order that goes into effect immediately. The order clearly outlines conduct required by county employees and "ensures that there are consequences for dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation," said Kamenetz.
Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, applauded the announcement as a strong move toward transparent government.
The Baltimore County ethics commission will have more ability to enforce some ethics laws under a bill proposed by Kamenetz.
The 50-page bill, which was not immediately available, will incorporate portions of the County Charter into County Code and charge the ethics commission with enforcing those provisions.
"I really believe a lot of these changes are long overdue but really they are common sense," Kamenetz said.
Baltimore County's ethics policies were first established in 1982. Listed below are key changes contained in the proposed legislation:
- Extends the prohibition of participation in a county matter when the employee's spouse or child has an interest in the outcome to also include the employee's parent or sibling.
- Dictates that an employee of the county may not work for a party that has a contract with the county if his/her county duties include matters substantially related to or affecting the subject matter of the contract. It also prohibits a contractor from submitting a bid for a county project when that contractor employs any individual (whether or not a county employee) who has been involved in creating the bid specifications for that project.
- Codifies into County Code Section 202 of the Baltimore County Charter, which prohibits a member of the County Council from being an officer or employee of the state or county, placing the violation of this prohibition under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission.
- Prohibits county employees from representing any party for compensation (except in certain judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings) in a matter before, or involving, the county or the state.
- Generally prohibits county officials and employees from soliciting gifts from people doing business with the county. In addition, it mandates that county employees may not accept from a person who does business with the county gifts of tickets or free admission to attend professional or inter-collegiate sporting events or charitable, cultural, or political events.
- Prohibits former county employees from ever representing or assisting a person for compensation in a matter in which he or she significantly participated as a county employee.
- Clarifies voting and disclosure rules for members of the county council when they may have a conflict of interest. Council members are presumed to have a disqualifying interest if they have a direct interest that would benefit from the vote, or from a close economic association with someone who will benefit from the legislation, or from a close economic association with a lobbyist lobbying the bill, or have a loan from someone who will benefit from the bill.
- Requires that financial disclosure by public officials be annually posted online beginning May 1, 2012.
- Imposes late fees for tardy filing of financial disclosure statements and lobbying registrations or reports that are filed late.
Most notably, one provision in the charter that prohibits County Council members from holding state jobs will be added to the code.
The announcement follows—but was not prompted by, officials said—a Patch report that revealed may have violated County Charter rules prohibiting sitting council members from holding state jobs during their terms. Oliver resigned the state job but officials said last week that there may have been no way to enforce the prohibition had he not voluntarily left.
Kamenetz said his proposal will solve that issue.
Mohler said Kamenetz and county attorneys have been working on updating county ethics laws for nearly a year.
After the news conference, Mohler acknowledged that language regarding the employment of council members was added soon after Patch first reported the issue.
Also in the bill will be a requirement that ethics disclosure forms filed by the executive, council and other county officials be posted online. Currently, the public documents are only available at the county Office of Law.
Those who wish to view them must fill out a form that asks for their name and home address. That form is provided to the officials whose forms are reviewed.
Kamenetz expects to have the council introduce the bill on Monday night. The council would likely hold a hearing on the bill on Nov. 29 with a final vote coming on Dec. 5.
Wichmann called Kamenetz's proposed changes "good strong points that make important changes that will make Baltimore County government far more open and transparent."
"It looks to be a serious and substantive proposal for enhancing transparency in government," she said.
Wichmann praised the county's decision to place the annual financial disclosures online and urged the county to not require residents to register to view the reports.
"In this age of the internet, there are no information gatekeepers," she said.
Wichmann added that she would like to see the county shorten the time period between the when the calendar year ends and reports are due. She said the county should also consider requiring some officials to file amended reports in the interim in the event of substantive changes such as taking a new job.
The state already requires the 188 members of the General Assembly to file similar amended reports.
Kamenetz said Wednesday that he thought such reports would be an onerous burden on the members of numerous volunteer boards in the county.
But Wichmann said the county could require just councilmembers and some key government memebers to file amended reports.
"It would be very easy to require people who vote on laws or have the ability to veto them to have higher levels of disclosure," Wichmann said.
Overall though, Wichmann said she was pleased with the announcement based on what was publically available on the law.
"It certainly addresses a number of issues we've seen around the state and it's good to see such a strong response," said Wichmann.
Stay with Patch for updates on this story.