Peter T. Kilborn believed he was doing his civic duty serving on the Chevy Chase Village board of managers. Most recently, he was vice president of the small town’s council.
But, Kilborn has resigned from the unpaid position as a result of a recent decision by the State Ethics Commission to deny an exemption request from stringent ethics disclosure requirements, he says.
Maryland Municipal League research director James Peck said Kilborn likely is the first elected official of a small municipality to leave a post because of the stricter ethics disclosure standard required of them.
But, he said, the league has heard numerous complaints statewide, and Kilborn probably won’t be the last to step down.
For more than two decades, the state required municipal officials to be in “substantial compliance” with the state ethics disclosure standard.
But a recent change by the state required senior administrative officials at municipalities to be in “strict compliance.” That meant longer, more detailed disclosure forms for elected officials to fill out, Peck said.
The General Assembly passed the new standards in 2010, with local governments given until Oct. 1, 2011, to approve their own ethics laws to meet the new requirement. However, many of the municipalities were unable to get the new laws passed in time and were given an extension until Oct. 1 of this year.
State Ethics Commission Executive Director Michael Lord said the state commission has heard from several local government officials worried that the new disclosure requirements will lead to resignations.
The State Ethics Commission has the authority to exempt small municipalities from the law, and more than half of all the municipal governments are exempted, Peck said.
The exemption criteria are set in the regulations and are based on a town’s population, number of employees and the size of its budget, Lord said.
Chevy Chase Village was not exempted because its $5 million annual spending plan was too large, Kilborn said.
The exempted towns are reviewed every 10 years to make certain they still meet the criteria, Lord said.
“It’s to allow the public to feel more comfortable when decisions are made that a conflict of interest is not taking place,” Lord said of the strict standards.
Towns have to certify each year that they are in compliance with state law.
The median municipality in the state is about three-quarters of a square mile in size, has fewer than 1,700 people and operates with a $1.8 million budget, Peck said.
“Many folks complained that the financial disclosure requirements were more stringent than they needed to be for municipal governments,” Peck said.
“Some folks are worrying about losing elected officials and reducing the pool of folks willing to run for office in the future because of this.”
Peck said the league will push state legislators to set a different standard for officials from smaller municipalities.
“It’s just bizarre in our case,” Kilborn said of Chevy Chase Village. “We’re only 2,000 people.
“You could see how the law would apply to Baltimore, where millions of dollars slosh across desks. No money crosses our desks. We don’t even have a desk; we have a table.”
Kilborn, an author and retired New York Times reporter and editor, said it would take hours for an individual to fill out all the required disclosure paperwork about real estate holdings, stock investments and other financial dealings. In addition, he would have to disclose his wife’s financial information.
In a town where a $5 check has to be signed by two of the seven board managers, making all of his and his wife’s financial information available for anyone to review and post online was not worth the trouble, Kilborn said.
“I don’t mean to sound all that rich, but people in Chevy Chase Village don’t need to go stealing $10 from the paper clip fund,” he said.
He also finds the disclosure requirement unfair to married couples. If a couple simply lived together, the partner would not have to disclose the financial information.
In his resignation letter, Kilborn said the state’s ethics ordinance’s “untenable level” of disclosure of personal finances is “wholly irrelevant to a board member’s responsibility for the affairs of a tiny community of 2,000.”