Winter Conference Panel Debates Ethics Disclosures

A panel at MACo’s 2012 Winter Conference discussed on January 5 how much information county elected officials and employees should have to disclose regarding their financial information and conflicts of interest.  Legislation passed in 2010 requiring local governments and boards of education to make revise their financial disclosure and conflict of interest disclosure laws at least as strict as the State’s law and this has raised many implementation questions.  Maryland Senator J.B. Jennings moderated the panel.

Susan Wichmann of Common Cause argued that disclosure is necessary to offset public skepticism and cynicism about government, noting that citizens “question” who their elected officials serve.  She also stated that the State’s current system of requiring citizens to go to Annapolis to access State disclosures put an undue burden on the citizens and that disclosures should be placed online.

Talbot County Council Member Laura Price noted that while she was initially was initially concerned about new disclosure requirements, many of her concerns evaporated once she sat down and read the State ethics disclosure form.  However, she remained concerned about the disclosure of certain financial information, arguing that an elected official’s business holdings should only be disclosed if the business entity does business with the county.  She also argued that some of the reporting requirements were more onerous for small, rural jurisdictions.  Council Member Price also questioned whether local government disclosures needed to placed online given the smaller geographic area and population of most counties and municipalities.

 State Ethics Commission Executive Director Michael Lord and Assistant General Council Deadra Daly clarified how the State law works and the process local governments should use to revise their disclosure laws.  Mr. Lord stated that while the Commission has not yet taken a position on online disclosure, Commission staff had identified some issues that would need to be addressed if the forms were placed online, including:  the expense to move the forms online, requiring online submission of the disclosure forms, and what positions merit online disclosure.

Ms. Daly complimented the counties on their response to the 2010 ethics law and provided technical details about the revision process.  She also clarified several areas in State law that have generated county questions, including secondary employment, limits on post-employment, and the receipt of gifts.


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