Expand ethics code, Wilson says

August 07, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County Council President Jeffrey Wilson says he will introduce an ordinance Tuesday to tighten and strictly define ethical standards and financial disclosure requirements for county employees.

Mr. Wilson said he regards the proposal as his "legacy" to the county government after 4 1/2 years on the council. He is not seeking re-election this year.

Introducing the bill this week, at the council's only August session, would allow it to be passed before the November election and, thus, before a new council president is elected, he said.

"There is a level of ethical behavior people should be able to expect of us," Mr. Wilson said. "I would like to leave as a legacy some signpost for people who want to do the right thing."

According to a near-final draft proposal that Mr. Wilson distributed last week, the bill would:

* Expand the number of individuals subject to financial disclosure requirements, to 47 county officials and employees and 46 members of advisory boards or commissions.

* Expand the county's ethics board from three members to five and transfer oversight of financial disclosure statements from the County Council to the board.

* Expand the circle of family members who could be considered sources of improper influence to include parents or in-laws grandparents, children, grandchildren and siblings. The current law defines family as a spouse and dependent children only.

* Set a maximum value of $25 on gifts an employee could accept from people in a position to influence them on government decisions.

* Give an employee 15 days to comply with the law after being notified by the board of a potential ethics or disclosure violation. The proposed ordinance also would impose a civil fine up to $1,000 for illegal acceptance of gifts or conflicts of interest.

* Stiffen lobbyists' registration requirements to include more details on disclosure statements.

* Maintain financial disclosure statements on record for three years instead of two.

"A law doesn't make honest politicians," Mr. Wilson said. "It's more like posting a road properly. It's a guide for honest people who want to do an honest job in the best interests of the people."

The new law would bring the overview of ethics and financial disclosure under a single five-member board that would be advised by the county law department. Mr. Wilson proposes three members appointed by the county executive and two appointed by the council.

Under current law, the three-member board is responsible for enforcing the ethics code. The County Council oversees financial disclosure records separately.

Officials required to disclose the sources and amounts of their income would include the county executive, council members, attorneys for the administration and council, and directors and some deputy directors of at least 10 county departments.

The bill also would require financial statements from unpaid members of several advisory boards, including the board of library trustees, the personnel advisory board and the planning advisory board.

The county's ethics code was last revised in 1981, according to assistant council attorney James Vannoy.

Mr. Wilson circulated a draft bill among county officials about 2 1/2 years ago. But because it maintained separate financial disclosure provisions and ethics standards in the county code, it was confusing and not well-received, he said.

He said the current bill, which combines the two issues into one section of the code, will be more definitive and more enforceable.

Mr. Wilson said the revisions were prompted, in part, by the Maryland Commission on Ethics, which has encouraged local jurisdictions to bring policy board members and department heads under review. The state commission must approve the county's revised code.

The proposed law is based on a model ethics law published by the commission and a law that covers state employees, Mr. Vannoy said.

Mr. Wilson said it would not affect campaign contributions or candidates running for office, who are under state jurisdiction.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled at 7 p.m. Sept. 15.

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