County Ethics Bill Would Restrict Lobbying, Add Enforcement

 

November 2, 2011

Former Baltimore County employees would be permanently barred from lobbying on issues that they worked on, under a proposal by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. The bill would also add teeth to a charter rule that prohibits County Council members from working for the state.

The proposal, which Kamenetz has asked the County Council to introduce Monday, follows Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver’s decision to quit his state job after revelations that it apparently violated the charter.

Kamenetz said his proposal is “not merely reacting to recent events,” and that he has been working on the legislation for at least four months, but a top aide later said the item on County Council members’ jobs was “a late addition.”

“It was added after the discovery that certain charter violations did not have any enforcement remedy within county government,” said Don Mohler, Kamenetz’s chief of staff.

The wide-ranging bill would also require that county officials’ financial disclosure forms be posted online, and prohibit employees from accepting gifts from people who do business with the county.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Kamenetz said in an interview. “I want to make sure that people have confidence in the decisions that county government makes. And that will allow people to accept those decisions more readily … I don’t want the public to second-guess any county employee.”

The disclosure forms would be published online starting in May 2012. Those who must file such disclosures include council members and other elected officials; department heads; the schools superintendent; and members of the planning and appeals boards.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, called Kamenetz’s proposals “very important steps forward.”

“Recent events have shown that the ethics laws and disclosure [requirements] need to be tightened up,” she said, mentioning the Oliver situation and the bribery trial of state Sen. Ulysses Currie, where testimony showed that Currie had not disclosed his work for Shoppers Food Warehouse on state financial disclosure forms.

Wichmann praised county officials for the proposal to post financial disclosure forms online. Her group has called for state legislators’ information to be published online, too.

“Online disclosure, full public disclosure, is important because it allows citizens to evaluate specific conflicts that they may be concerned about,” she said. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Still, Wichmann said Baltimore County could strengthen the legislation by making officials update their disclosure forms if their financial situation significantly changes, such as with a new job. The law requires only annual filing, so an official could potentially hide a conflict of interest for a year.

Current county law prohibits employees from participating in matters in which a child or spouse has an interest. Under Kamenetz’s proposal, employees also would have to recuse themselves from matters involving their parents and siblings.

The measure would bar former county employees from ever being paid to represent a person or company on matters the employee had worked on for the county. Current law lets people lobby if they wait a year after leaving their county employment.

Also, contractors would not be allowed to bid on a project if they employ someone who has ever had a hand in writing bid specifications for that project.

The bill also would codify a section of the county charter prohibiting County Council members from working for the state or county agencies. The county Ethics Commission would have the authority to enforce the rule.

Last week, Oliver said he would leave his job at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, where he had been working as a finance specialist. County officials have said there appear to be no penalties if a council member violates the employment rule.

Another provision in the bill would bar county employees from accepting sporting and event tickets from people who do business with the county.

“I would see county employees at different events – at political events, at sporting events – and it would cause me concern,” Kamenetz said in the interview.

The legislation would also address conflicts of interest among County Council members, clarifying when they must disclose a possible conflict on a matter they’re voting on. And it would impose fees on people who file financial disclosure or lobbying reports late.
If introduced Monday night, the ethics legislation would be set for a council vote in December.

County Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. said the council supports Kamenetz’s proposals.
“Any time you can make improvements in having transparent government, that is what you should strive to do,” he said.

Kamenetz also plans to issue an executive order today, creating a code of conduct for county employees. The order names the county attorney the “chief public ethics officer” and designates department heads as “public ethics officers” who must notify the county attorney of all questions raised about ethical behavior.

-Alison Knezevich

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