Revision of ethics law set for hearing tonight

September 19, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

A revision of the county's public ethics law that spells out the investigative powers of the Ethics Commission will come before the County Council for a public hearing tonight.

Reworking the law was designated as one of the first tasks for the seven-member commission, created by charter amendment in the November 1992 election. Formerly, ethics issues were handled by the county attorney, who is appointed by the county executive.

The law will detail how the commission will investigate complaints against county employees and how it will conduct hearings. The commission will have subpoena power and the authority to administer oaths. It also will become keeper of the financial disclosure statements required of all top county officials, the county executive and County Council.

The law also establishes whistle-blower protections and closes some existing loopholes.

James Jones, the commission's executive director, said revising the law took most of the summer. Commission members looked at laws from surrounding jurisdictions, particularly Baltimore County, and picked the best from each.

"I think it makes our law one of the better ones," he said. "It's a little clearer. It spells out in definite terms what can and cannot be done."

For example, the law tightens rules on what gifts county %J employees can accept. Occasional meals and beverages of modest value, ceremonial gifts or awards that have insignificant monetary value and trivial items of informational value present no problem.

But tickets to an Orioles game could be a problem.

"XYZ company in the past could give them tickets, and the way the ethics law is written, now they could accept them," Mr. Jones said. "But in the future, their invitation would have to be part of them being part of some type of ceremony [at the game]."

The whistle-blower provision is restricted to anyone who uses the ethics law to point out a conflict of interest, he said. The council may want to draft a broader law sometime later.

"Anyone who uses our law is protected," said Mr. Jones. "The idea obviously is to give people the freedom to speak out."

Once the county's law is passed, it must be approved by the state's Ethics Commission.

The council meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers at the Arundel Center in Annapolis.

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