Legislating Ethics in Zoning HOWARD COUNTY

January 04, 1993

Howard County Council members receive campaign donations from developers and landowners. The same council members, sitting as members of the county zoning board, vote on matters affecting their campaign contributors.

Is there a conflict of interests here? You better believe it.

This is the situation that exists today in Howard County. And that is why we support Del. Martin G. Madden's proposed ethics bill to require those seeking a zoning decision in Howard to disclose campaign contributions of $500 or more that they made to local officials.

We are mindful that Delegate Madden's bill does not disqualify a council member from voting on a zoning matter because of a related campaign contribution -- which is what a similar measure passed for Prince George's County last year accomplishes. But short of disqualification, the Madden bill might cause a council member to step aside voluntarily once the public is aware of a conflict. That is much preferable to what happens now.

As Delegate Madden points out, the current situation makes it difficult to determine the major contributors to council members. Often, contributions are listed on campaign financing forms as coming from obscure subsidiaries or partnerships, making the true source difficult to discern.

Sometimes, council members say they are not even aware of who their contributors are when it comes to zoning decisions.

A case in point involves County Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, formerly vice chairwoman of the zoning board. Ms. Pendergrass received $2,250 in campaign contributions from parties connected with the controversial Waverly Woods project, which is under consideration for rezoning. Ms. Pendergrass says that she was unaware of the donations.

Of course, if Delegate Madden's bill passes muster in the General Assembly session than begins Jan. 13, the effect may be that developers and landowners stop making campaign contributions to County Council members. This would be a benefit as well. In fact, in other jurisdictions where the local legislature also acts as the zoning board, similar measures should be considered. Beyond that, however, purity of ethics is a principle that all the legislation imaginable cannot guarantee.

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