New Ethics Laws on Horizon

Local elected officials in Maryland and members of boards of education will soon be subject to more stringent conflict-of-interest and financial-disclosure requirements. A law passed unanimously in both chambers of the General Assembly last year (SB315) requires county and municipal governments to amend their ethics ordinances to meet or exceed disclosure laws that have been in effect for state officials for 30 years.

Maryland Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert A. Hahn said some smaller municipalities may be exempted from the stricter law. There is concern at the local level that reporting requirements could scare away much needed talent and expertise because the disclosures may be too inclusive of personal financial information. Some say it requires disclosure beyond what is needed to guard against corruption. Also, maintaining and tracking compliance of the new law could become too onerous for local governments, burdened with administering the new mandates. Officials will have to file their information with their municipality by April 30 of each year.

On the issue of political appointees, St. Michaels’ Town Attorney Karen Ruff and Ford agree that disclosures for appointees and employees remain unchanged. Ruff informed the Commissioners in an August 10 memorandum about the changes in local law that must be enacted and approved by the state Ethics Commission by Oct. 1.

Maryland Municipal League Research Director James P. Peck said there is wide perception that the law goes too far in what it asks of elected officials in small towns to reveal about their personal lives. They will have to reveal personal financial information about themselves that average citizens would not normally share with a neighbor, he said. Peck said that the saving grace for really small municipalities will be exemptions granted by the Maryland Ethics Commission.

Ethics Commission Executive Hahn says he’s also hearing the same concerns about financial disclosure. He said that in presentations made to the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties, questions have come up about the depth of business disclosures.