Montgomery municipal officials differ on proposed changes to state ethics law -- Gazette.Net


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Some Gaithersburg officials are trying to drum up support for changing the Maryland Public Ethics Law to require less financial disclosure from municipal officials.

Gaithersburg City Attorney Lynn Board sent a letter to the Rockville Mayor and Council in January requesting support for amending the law. The current law, passed in 2010, requires city officials to disclose any interest in property they have and all salaried employment held by them and their immediate family members, among other things.

The proposed changes, according to Rockville Mayor and Council documents, include only requiring officials to disclose property located in the same county as the municipality or property that was acquired from a person who has done business with the city in the past 10 years.

The proposed changes would be based on Senate Bill 948, which Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park introduced last year.

Raskin, who was one of the original sponsors of the 2010 Maryland Public Ethics Law, which required more detailed financial disclosures from city officials, also sought unsuccessfully to modify the law last year.

Gaithersburg council member Jud Ashman and local council representatives testified before a state work group about the law. The group was appointed by Raskin and Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Dist. 12B) of Columbia to review the law’s disclosure requirements.

“What we’re asking for is a happy medium,” Ashman said.

Disclosing relevant information is important to the constituent-representative relationship, he said, but disclosing certain kinds of information could harm municipal officials more than help them.

Many elected officials at the municipal level own businesses or work for the local government part time, Ashman said. If they are required to disclose information about their indebtedness, that could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

In addition, Ashman said, there is a “chilling effect” on citizens who consider running for elected office. With the knowledge that they will have to disclose information, they may choose not to run, he said.

Two of the seven members of the Chevy Chase Village Board of Managers resigned last year, citing the lengthy paperwork and nature of financial disclosures required under the law. The town did not meet the criteria to be exempted by the State Ethics Commission, because it has an annual budget of about $5 million.

Rockville council member Tom Moore said he thinks the law is appropriate as written, especially for larger cities like Rockville that exercise planning authority and have relatively large budgets. If necessary, lawmakers could direct the State Ethics Commission to exempt small towns from some of the requirements, he said, rather than changing the laws for everyone.

“If [there has] to be some kind of change, I would suggest that it would be for smaller towns, not for bigger towns,” he said. “I’m not going to lead the charge for exempting anyone.”

Moore said he thinks Rockville and other municipalities should comply with the law as written.

“I gotta think that there’s some appetite for not getting tagged as being weak on ethics,” he said.

Another meeting of the public ethics work group is scheduled for Feb. 7. Rockville’s Mayor and Council are expected to discuss supporting an amendment to the ethics law later in February.

ewaibel@gazette.net, scarignan@gazette.net