Planning Commission Advisory @ 02 Feb 2010

Questions have been asked about the Ethics Commission’s Advisory Opinion process as a result of the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners voting 3 to 1, with one abstention, to seat a QAC businessman, Barry Waterman, on the Planning Commission.


The background is as follows.  Before the vote, in response to constituents’ concerns about the appointment to the Planning Commission persons believed to have possible conflicts of interest, Commissioner Fordonski had requested the financial disclosure forms of all the applicants. After reviewing the information on the forms, and in the interest of doing “due diligence”  before making a possibly unlawful appointment, she asked the Ethics Commission for two Advisory Opinions, one of which was whether Mr. Waterman’s membership on the Planning Commission would be an Ethics violation due to his business interests.  The Ethics Commission advised her that Mr. Waterman would be prohibited from membership on the Planning Commission.


This request, and the resulting Advisory Opinion, had nothing to do with Mr. Waterman’s character, nothing to do with his views or his politics, nothing to do with his ability to serve the County in other capacities.  They simply addressed whether Mr. Waterman’s business interests, as described by him under oath sixteen months ago in his financial disclosure form (required for transparency for members of Comprehensive Plan Topic Committees), would preclude his membership on the Planning Commission.


In his financial disclosure form, Mr. Waterman stated he was President and part-owner of Waterman Realty, a general and limited partner of the Waterman Family Partnership and Vice-President of Waterman, Inc.  He described the nature of the businesses as “Real Estate brokerage, investment, development, consulting, and construction.”  He indicated he owned, in whole or in part, numerous properties, including Wheatlands Farm, currently under consideration for development. 


The County Ethics Law provides that a County official is prohibited from being employed by or having a financial interest in an entity that is “subject to the authority of that official or employee or of the governmental unit with which the official or employee is affiliated.”  In short, you cannot serve on a governmental body that supervises or gives approvals to a business you have an interest in.  Simply recusing oneself from decisions directly affecting your business is not enough, because by giving or withholding approvals on other projects, you set precedents and establish policies that can benefit your interests.


The prohibition cited by the Ethics Commission assures the public that decisions made on their behalf are free from considerations of personal financial gain.  Notice that the prohibition does not keep all developers from membership on the QAC Planning Commission.  A developer would not necessarily be prohibited from serving if he/she did not develop in Queen Anne’s County. 


An Advisory Opinion is simply that - it is a non-binding answer to a question about the application of the Ethics Law.  In responding to a request for an Advisory Opinion, the Ethics Commission applies the Ethics Law to the facts provided in the request, in this case, Mr. Waterman’s financial disclosure form. The Complaint process is quite different; it is an allegation made under oath of a violation of the Ethics Law.  The subject of the complaint is informed of the complaint, notified of his right to respond and present evidence, and his right to an attorney.


The Advisory Opinion process is common to most Ethics Laws and is designed to help people avoid violating the Ethics Law and so possibly becoming the subject of a Complaint. Last year, the QAC Ethics Commission issued 17 Advisory Opinions.  They are available both in the Liberty Building and on our website  under Opinions>Advisory Opinions>Conflicts>1.29.10(#10-01) 



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