County Executive Robert R. Neall has urged county employees to observe stricter ethical standards by returning gifts and avoiding any appearance of conflict of interest.
Neall also wants to establish a county ethics commission to review ethical issues. Even though it was the first to pass an ethics law, Anne Arundel is the only one of Maryland's 23 counties that doesn't have an ethics commission, according to Common Cause of Maryland.
The county's new emphasis on ethics began in earnest two weeks ago. At a planning retreat on budget priorities, Neall talked with department heads about ethics, and County Attorney Jud Garrett reviewed the county ethics law.
"Bobby feels it is very important to avoid not only improper conduct, but the appearance of improper conduct," Garrett said. "If you have any questions about doing something, you probably shouldn't do it. The public should always feel they are being treated fairly."
Spokeswoman Louise Hayman said Neall chose to focus on ethics now because the holidays are traditionally a time when developers, businesses and others give county employees gifts.
However, perhaps because of the sagging economy, Neall reported receiving only three gifts this year: a fruit basket, a clock and a print of Maryland scenes. All three gifts were returned with notes thanking the givers, but explaining that county employees can't accept gifts.
Under the law, county employees can't accept gifts from anyone doing business with the county. Garrett, however, ruled that county employees should decline all gifts from anyone who may fall into that category.
"I think it's too close a call to accept gifts from some peopleand not others," Garrett said. "Someone might register as a lobbyistlater."
The directors of the county's four "land use" departments-- planning and zoning, public works, inspections and permits and utilities -- sent a memo to their employees telling them not to accept gifts.
The law also prohibits county employees from using their office for private gain or involving themselves in county business if they or a relative have a financial stake in the matter. High-ranking county officials also are required to file financial disclosure forms.
Former County Attorney Stephen Beard, who wrote a booklet on theethics law under the administration of former County Executive O. James Lighthizer, said he agreed with Neall's and Garrett's strict approach to the law.
"If a gift is something of nominal value and was given to show appreciation, it should be returned," Beard said. "You can't fault any politician for trying to be as pure as Caesar's wife."