Statement of Ethics Matters to Newly Constituted Ethics Commission 3/26/07
This is a notable day for ethics in Queen Anne's County. The new County Commissioners have enacted a good ethics law that meets State standards, and appointed five new members to the newly expanded Ethics Commission to administer it. We appreciate the time and dedication you are giving to the County by serving on the Ethics Commission.
The accountability of governmental bodies to the public is essential in a democracy. Since Ethics Commission meetings are rarely attended by the public, Ethics Matters tries to have a Board member attend each of the Ethics Commission's meetings. You should know that three of our five Board members are former members of the Queen Anne's County Ethics Commission, so we understand full well what it is like to sit where you are sitting.
We know the challenges of administering and enforcing the County's Ethics Law, while being at the same time subject to the constraints of Maryland's Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act. We are firm believers in the value of all three of these laws, and we support you as you work within them.
We also feel that should a problem with the administration of these three laws arise, we have a duty of care to bring it to your attention.
We want to make sure you know that we share a common goal. We do not attend your meetings to find fault but rather in support of an important democratic principle and process - accountable ethical governance. Thank you again for your service to the people of Queen Anne's County.
Statement of Ethics Matters on the Passage of the Ethics Reform Act 1/16/07
Statement of Ethics Matters regarding the Passing of Ordinance 06-101, The Ethics Reform Act of 2006, by a unanimous vote of the County Commissioners on January 16, 2007
At last, with these amendments, Queen Anne's County will have a fair, enforceable Ethics Code. The Ethics Reform Act of 2006 meets and surpasses the State requirement for county ethics codes. It is good enough to serve as a model for other small counties as they update their ethics laws. It is an ethics code that government workers and the public at large can point to with pride. Thank you for making good ethics legislation a top priority of your administration. It is a great day for Queen Anne's County.
The Ethics Reform Act of 2006, Ordinance 06-101
With the introduction on January 9 of an amendment containing an important conflicts provision, the County Commissioners completed a package of proposed amendments to the County's Ethics Code. (See Provisions of Proposed Ethics Amendments below.)These amendments, the Ethics Reform Act of 2006 (Ordinance 06-101) will provide our County with:
- an ethics code that meets and exceeds the State's minimum requirement for County Ethics Codes
- an independent Ethics Commission
- a fair, enforceable Ethics Code that promotes open, accountable government
- an Ethics Code good enough to serve as a model for other small counties as they update their codes
- an Ethics Code that government officials, employees and the public at large can point to with pride
Provisions of Proposed Ethics Amendments
Conflicts of Interest:
- Restores the missing required conflicts of interest provision that prohibits having a contractual relationship with a business subject to the authority of your government unit.
- Excuses from conflicts provisions regarding employment or ownership interests those officials or employees who are appointed to a regulatory or licensing authority pursuant to a requirement that persons subject to the jurisdiction of such authority be represented in appointments to it.
- Counsel prosecuting a complaint may not be the same counsel who advises the Ethics Commission on the complaint.
- Rules regarding confidentiality of complaint proceedings.
- Ability to require relevant evidence or knowledgeable witnesses (subpoena power subject to review by the County Attorney).
- Number of years allowed for bringing a complaint for an alleged violation increased to 2.
- Provides penalty for filing more than 2 frivolous complaints.
- Respondent found innocent in complaint proceeding recommended for reimbursement for reasonable legal fees.
- Those registered as lobbyists do not have to account for all their income from a client, only income received for lobbying activities as defined by the QAC Ethics Law.
- Membership of Commission expanded to 5 and an alternate.
- Limit lobbyist prohibition to Commission member (not family members)
- Attorney for Ethics Commission appointed by Ethics Commission with consent of County Commissioners.
- "subject to the authority of" defined and used consistently throughout code
AMENDMENTS TO THE QAC ETHICS CODE PROPOSED BY ETHICS MATTERS
Some Defects in Queen Anne's County's New Ethics Code
1. The new law makes it acceptable for a government official or employee to have a financial interest in or be employed by a company that is doing business with his or her government agency.
The provision prohibiting government officials or employees from having a financial interest in or being employed by a company that is doing business with his or her government agency is a State requirement. It is not in the QAC Ethics Law passed by the County Commissioners on November 15. Conflicts of Interest (8-11)
2. The new law allows a government official to act on a matter that directly affects a business owned by his or her brother or sister, parent, or adult child.
The code prohibits County officials and employees from "[a]cting on behalf of the County in any matter which would, to their knowledge, have a direct financial impact, as distinguished from the public generally, on them or a family member, or a business entity in which any of the aforesaid have an interest" [III 8-1(a)] (emphasis supplied)
The County changed the definition of "family member"(8-6e) to "any parents, children, stepchildren, siblings, and the spouse of an official or employee who reside in the same household with the official or employee." (emphasis supplied)
This is one of the most basic prohibitions in the whole code. It has been restricted so that that now county officials and employees are able to make decisions that have a direct financial impact on a brother, sister, parent, or adult child who doesn't live in the same house with them.
3. In the new law, if the Ethics Commission determines that the County Commissioners' or any other part-time officials' outside employment does not affect their official duties, that determination improperly allows the Ethics Commission to excuse them from all other major provisions of the ethics law, including gifts and financial disclosure
This change was not made in response to any suggested change or requirement in the letter (8/30/05) from the State Ethics Commission regarding the proposed earlier version of the law.
The exemption/modification provision (8-15), standard in county ethics laws, establishes three conditions, all of which must be met, for an Ethics Commission to grant an exception to a County official or employee from the Gifts, Conflicts of Interest, and Financial Disclosure provisions of the ethics code. The three conditions are: constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy; significantly reduce the availability of qualified persons for public service; and not be required to preserve the purposes of this chapter.
Our new Ethics Code has changed that standard provision by adding a single stand-alone condition which, if met, allows the Ethics Commission to ignore the three conditions and grant exemptions by deciding that outside employment does not affect their official duties.
Thus, the Ethics Commission can now broadly exempt an elected official or part time member of a board or commission from prohibitions against receiving improper gifts or from requirements to disclose ownership in a business he regulating in his official capacity - simply because his outside employment (doctor, retired person, insurance agent) doesn't affect his official duties.
4. The new law weakens regulations concerning lobbying.
Lobbying to influence departmental decisions is no longer a lobbying activity that is covered by the ethics code. This is due to limiting the definition of "executive action" only to actions taken by the County Commissioners (8-6d) and then removing "administrative" from lobbying (8-6i).
Also, lobbyists are no longer included among those persons from whom gifts to county officials or employees are prohibited.(8-12a). This is due to an earlier removal of the definition of "subject to regulation by."
5. Our new ethics law removes large numbers of County employees from meeting any of the standards of the Ethics Code.
Section 8-5e removes officials and employees without decision making authority from the conflicts of interest and gifts provisions of the Ethics Code. All previous versions of the proposed new code - and even the weak 1984 code - included these officials and employees in these provisions. All county officials and employees should be covered by the County's ethics code.
6. Our new ethics law makes the Ethics Commission ineffective when dealing with a citizen's complaint.
The Ethics Commission cannot compel anyone to produce evidence, yet must find "clear and convincing" evidence in order to determine a violation of the code. Section 8-10 (h)(2).
An ethics code is like a warranty. As tax-payers, citizens pay for their County government. The public ethics code is a warranty that assures citizens that their government is acting in their behalf and not in the personal financial interest of any individual official or employee. Most of the time, there is no need to resort to your warranty, but you certainly want to have one because it sets a standard of performance - and it is there when you need it.
8-104. Statement of Purpose and Policy.
(a) Queen Anne's County, recognizing that our system of representative government is dependent in large measure upon the people having trust and confidence in their public officials and employees, finds and declares that the people have a right to be assured that the impartiality and independent judgment of public officials and employees will be maintained.
(b) This confidence and trust is eroded when the conduct of Queen Anne's County business is subject to improper influence or even the appearance of improper influence.
(c) The people have a right to be assured that the financial interests of holders of and candidates for public office and public officials and employees present no conflict with the public interest.
(d) This title establishes ethical standards for County officials and employees, financial disclosure requirements for certain County officials, employees, and members of Boards and Commissions, and disclosure requirements for lobbyists.
(e) For the purpose of guarding against improper influence and setting minimum standards for the ethical conduct of public business, the Board of County Commissioners of Queen Anne's County enacts this Public Ethics Law.
Proposed Chapter 8 Ethics Ordinance for Queen Anne's County