9 county charter changes approved, 4 rejected Critics say amendments will weaken ethics laws

November 06, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County voters yesterday approved nine changes to their county charter -- or constitution -- including two measures that critics contend will weaken ethics standards for county officials.

Voters also rejected four proposed changes. But county officials said those proposals essentially were bureaucratic housecleaning. One failed change, for example, would have changed the term "Appeal Boards" to "Board of Appeals."

Several of the measures that passed are significant, particularly to those who fought for their defeat. One of the activists, James Holway -- who drafted the original charter in 1966 -- blamed Howard officials for not explaining well the proposed charter changes.

"Voters assume the [charter] questions must be all right or important, or the questions wouldn't be there," Holway said.

In interviews around the county yesterday, many voters admitted they didn't fully understand the charter changes.

With the changes approved yesterday, the charter now:

Permits county officials and employees to accept gifts of "nominal" value from persons or corporations doing business with the county. The charter had banned acceptance of all gifts.

Permits the county to impose minor penalties for minor conflict-of-interest violations. The charter had called for only one penalty: being removed from office.

Establishes a "redistricting commission" every 10 years, which will draw new voting districts for Howard's five-member County Council. The major political parties each will appoint three members to the commission. The commission's proposed districts can be rejected by the County Council, but are not subject to voter recall.

Tom Meachum, an attorney who chaired the Charter Review Commission that proposed the changes earlier this year, said they will strengthen ethics standards and establish a sensible redistricting procedure.

The definition of "nominal" gift draws a clear distinction between a cup of coffee and something that could actually influence an official, Meachum said.

Also, the establishment of minor penalties for minor ethics violations will give flexibility to the County Ethics Commission, which has been reluctant to boot officials from office for minor ethics issues.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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