Facing a state requirement, Mount Airy officials are in the process of revising the town’s laws that govern how elected officials deal with matters related to conflicts of interest and financial disclosure.
Members of the Mount Airy Town Council and ethics commission met Tuesday to discuss the most recent draft of the town’s proposed ethics regulations.
In 2010, state legislation mandated that counties, school boards and municipalities submit a draft of their new laws by Oct. 1, 2011, for approval by the Maryland State Ethics Commission. Regulations must match state ethics laws to which state lawmakers in the General Assembly are subject.
However, a few towns in Frederick County, including Mount Airy, Brunswick and Thurmont, still have not met final approval by the state.
“It’s been an ongoing process for over a year,” said Dick Swanson, chairman of the Mount Airy Ethics Commission. “We’re one of many trying to meet state code but [who are also] not [trying to] over burden elected officials.”
The Mount Airy Ethics Commission consists of four members and one alternate, and is charged with, among other duties, providing written advisory opinions as requested by covered individuals as defined by the town ethics code.
The state law requires that the town update its financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest provisions so they are at least as stringent as those laid out in the state ethics code. Previously, state law said that the provisions only had to be similar.
“They really broadened the amount of information and type of information that elected officials, employees and people on commissions have to disclose annually,” Swanson said. “Primarily, the state is concerned with the sections of conflict of interests, lobbying and financial disclosure.”
Mount Airy Mayor Patrick Rockinberg said he understands the need for the state requirement but is concerned that the provisions may limit government involvement in the town.
“I think the ethics revision that we recieved is written more for larger governments as opposed to small towns,” he said. “As written it may limit those who want to serve in the capacity of small town government.... The overall reasoning for reviewing the ethic ordinance is sound. However, there should be a distinction between professional career politicians and small town volunteers like we have in Mount Airy.”
Mount Airy town officials submitted a draft to the state commission after reviewing their laws last summer and are currently addressing the body’s suggested changes. Swanson said that the town is planning to submit another draft before Sept. 14, the day of the State Ethics Commission’s next meeting.
“We are one of a number of municipalities that hasn’t had their ordinances finalized because of the amount of changes that need to be made,” he said.
Along with Mount Airy, Brunswick and Thurmont are still in the process of revising their laws, according to Michael Lord, executive director with the Maryland State Ethics Commission.
Frederick County and the city of Frederick have been approved by the state. Emmitsburg and Walkersville both received state approval in May.
Some municipalities, including the towns of Burkittsville, Middletown, Myersville, New Market, Rosemont and Woodsboro, are exempt from the ethics mandate.
The commission looks at several aspects of the town, including size, population and the town budget, when making a determination about which municipalities are excluded. Lord said generally smaller municipalities are exempt.
Each year, the municipalities have to certify to the commission by Oct. 1 their compliance with the state code. Lord said he believes that this year many of the municipalities will have their regulations approved and will be in compliance.
“Because it took a while for us to get our regulations in order and our models we realized that the Oct. 1, 2011 [deadline] was too aggressive.... The [code] requires some very significant changes,” he said. “We’re more hopeful that this Oct. 1 we will have most of the governments complying.”
Swanson said the comments the town gets in its next draft from the state commission will determine how long the process will take, but he hopes the town will gain approval in the next few months. After the new regulations are approved by the state commission, they will have to also be approved by the town council.
“What are trying to do is come up with a balanced ethics ordinance that at the same time is acceptable to the town council.”