Under pressure, county acts to toughen ethics laws Ordinance would end 'self-enforcement'

December 04, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Under pressure from the state, Anne Arundel County is moving to strengthen its ethics laws so that elected officials undergo reviews intended to prevent conflicts of interest.

The County Council will hold a hearing Dec. 15 on an ordinance that would end the "self-enforcing" of county ethics laws by council members and the county executive.

Under the proposed law, elected officials who wanted to take a vote or an action in which they had a personal financial interest would first have to submit a written explanation to the county Ethics Commission for a ruling.

Although council members submit statements describing their financial interests to the Ethics Commission, this panel does not usually issue opinions before council members cast votes.

Under current law, the Ethics Commission investigates only potential conflicts of interest after officials take actions. Even then, the commission looks into questions only when members of the public file complaints.

"This sounds like it's a step in the right direction -- an improvement of the ethics laws in Anne Arundel County," said Dawn Kane, spokeswoman for Common Cause/Maryland, a political watchdog organization.

"With this change, the county will get some more outside objectivity in evaluating these matters. The people who have the conflicts don't always have this objectivity," Kane said.

The state Ethics Commission has been threatening to sue Anne Arundel County to force its compliance with state law for more than six months if it did not tighten its ethics laws, according to county and state officials.

The state's interest in the matter was not motivated by any allegations of unethical behavior by the county's elected representatives, said Nancy Speck, general counsel for the state NTC Ethics Commission.

Arundel is one of three counties in the state whose ethics laws meet "disapproval" from the state Ethics Commission because their laws vary from state standards, Speck said. The other counties are Prince George's and Montgomery.

The Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission was in the news recently when a group of Pasadena residents asked for an ethics investigation of County Councilman Thomas W. Redmond Sr.

The residents alleged that Redmond ignored a potential conflict of interest April 7 when he cast the deciding vote in favor of a zoning law change that saved the company of a business associate. Redmond denied any wrong-doing.

Betsy Dawson, director of the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission, said she thinks the change in the county's ethics laws will make local elected officials more sensitive to potential conflicts. "I think this will make County Council members more alert to ethical issues," Dawson said. "And I think that the state might have litigated if the county didn't make the change."

Patricia A. Logan, senior assistant county attorney, said, "The state had been after us for a long time to make these changes. They felt our provisions were 'self-enforcing,' whereas the state law requires that matters go before the Ethics Commission first before an action."

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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