The long-running attempt to craft ethics legislation for Howard County's Zoning Board is about to be renewed, this time with a greater chance of success. Even so, the impact of this bill, if passed, would be minimal.
The goal of this legislation is to deter applicants for zoning changes from contributing to the campaigns of Howard County Council members, who also compose the Zoning Board. The bill also applies to the county executive.
As authored by state Sen. Martin G. Madden, the bill would require applicants to disclose campaign contributions of $500 or more. Parties opposing a zoning change would also have to disclose like contributions.
A similar measure last year passed the legislature, but Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed it. County Executive Charles I. Ecker opposed it because it did not cover the executive, or contributions made by those who opposed a zoning change. The new bill attempts to address those concerns, although Mr. Ecker said he is not certain he can support it.
Mr. Madden's revised legislation is still so rife with exemptions and loopholes that it's little more than window-dressing. Although applicants would be compelled to disclose contributions, several other interested parties would not.
The exemptions include engineers, planners, real estate brokers and attorneys, many of whom take the lead in handling proposals before the board. In effect, a land developer could attempt to hide a contribution by directing it through one of these third parties.
Another loophole may be inadvertent but is no less a problem. Because of the zoning referendum approved by voters last November, council members are currently considering legislation that would bring comprehensive rezoning before the council rather than before the zoning board. That could result in a spate of zoning decisions not affected by disclosure under the Madden bill.
Mr. Madden says that his bill is at least a first step and that stronger measures can be added in the future. But this incremental move does not come close to eliminating the conflict of interest between Zoning Board members and campaign contributors.
To do that, the council would have to do what we and others have suggested before: Create a separate zoning board with members appointed to the position.