Advisory Opinions - May-August @ 02 Oct 2008

Ethics Matters has just posted several months’ worth (May-Aug) of Advisory Opinions issued by the County’s Ethics Commission in “Documents” on this web site. The Ethics Commission (EC) has had problems with the numbering of these opinions, making it difficult to post and refer to the opinions in a meaningful way.  At their September meeting, the EC straightened out the problem.


Several of the opinions advise about the financial disclosure requirement for “ad hoc committees and subcommittees providing advice and/or recommendations regarding acquisition, zoning, or designation of land.”  Opinions regarding this provision and the necessity for financial disclosure were issued in regard to the Chesapeake College Area Citizens Advisory Committee , the Committee on Site Selection for the Regional Detention Center , and the Public Works Advisory Board .


It should be noted, in passing, that these ad hoc citizen advisory committees are not subject to any other provisions (conflicts, gifts) of the County Ethics Law.  Different interests should be represented on them, while the transparency provided by financial disclosure allows committee members to know where other members are “coming from” and reassures citizens that interests are represented fairly in relationship to the make-up of the community.


There were also a number of opinions regarding possible conflicts between County employment and outside/part time employment, as well as possible conflicts regarding spousal employment.  The acceptance of gifts valued at more than $20 was also considered.


Ethics Matters made two requests for advisory opinions, both about the same situation regarding a conflict of interest. In September 2007, in an opinion that cited no provisions of the law, the Ethics Commission found there was no conflict of interest for a member of the Ethics Commission to join the law firm of the Ethics Commission’s counsel.  In their opinion about this situation involving itself, the EC failed to consider a central, controlling conflicts provision which prohibits a member of a board from being employed by or having a financial interest in an entity that is doing business with the governmental unit with which the board member is affiliated. 


Ethics Matters requested a reconsideration of the opinion, citing the above controlling provision, but at their December meeting in Opinion 07-20, the Ethics Commission reaffirmed their earlier opinion and denied the request for reconsideration, saying the question was moot since the member had resigned. They left on the record the opinion that no conflict existed.


Again this April, with two new members on the Commission, Ethics Matters requested a reconsideration of the no-conflict opinions in this situation.  This time, at their May meeting in Opinion 08-12, the Ethics Commission determined that they had overlooked the provision that was “appropriate for consideration in the context of this case” in their September opinion.  They now agreed there was a violation of the law.


At this point Ethics Matters has two remaining concerns, both concerning the very confusing guidance this May opinion gives to those subject to the ethics law  First is the opinion’s continuing reaffirmation of their mistaken and unconvincing earlier opinion of no conflict based on a non-controlling provision of the ethics law.  Second, the May opinion is so filled with legalistic discussion that an ordinary person looking for guidance may easily miss the very important fact buried in a paragraph on the second page that a conflict of interest violation does in fact exist in this kind of situation. To see the May opinion on this site, go to Documents, Advisory Opinions, Conflicts 5.20.08 #08-12.


Members of Ethics Matters attend all Ethics Commission meetings. The Ethics Commissioners are to be congratulated for their hard work.  We have been impressed by their commitment to conducting information and education programs about the ethics law, and we hope they continue to do so as new officials, employees, and Board and Commission members undertake their responsibilities to Queen Anne’s County citizens.  The resulting awareness of ethics issues serves the County well.  It also creates more work for the Commission with a stream of advisory opinion requests.  Increasingly, the Commission considers these requests carefully with attention both to the circumstances of the request and the provisions of the law.

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