Anne Arundel County Council members could vote on issues affecting their profession and distant relatives, and more county employees could accept gifts, under sweeping law changes to be considered tomorrow, Ethics Commission members say.
County Executive Janet S. Owens recommended the changes last month to make the county's ethics law more like state law.
But members of the county ethics panel, who learned the specifics of the overhaul only recently, said they are concerned that the changes would water down the law.
"Let's let them do whatever they want to do, is that what they're saying?" Ethics Commission member Carol Lewnes asked with a slight laugh at a recent meeting.
Council members could vote on the measure tomorrow night, but are expected to offer several amendments and postpone a decision.
"Overall, it's a pretty good bill," said council Vice Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks. But, he added, "I think you're going to hear us listen to concerns."
The Ethics Commission's biggest concern is that modeling the county statute after state law might not always make sense. Power rests with a smaller number of people at the county level, noted Betsy K. Dawson, the commission's executive director.
"Access to an elected official in the county is very different than access to an elected official at the state," said Dawson, who will testify on the commission's objections tomorrow. "You have to have access to a lot more [elected] officials at the state to get your bill passed."
County Attorney Linda Schuett, an administration spokeswoman, said she doesn't follow that argument. "To me, conduct is either ethical, or it's not," she said. "It's either ethical in state law, or it's not."
The most obvious change in the proposal would allow Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, to vote on matters concerning Police Department pay and benefits. He has been prevented from voting on several bills because his wife's uncle is the president of the police sergeants union.
The proposed law would allow council members and members of other county boards to vote on issues as long as they do not pertain to the member's immediate family - spouses, children, parents and siblings. The existing law prohibits participation if the decision affects uncles, aunts, nieces, relatives of a spouse or grandparents.
The local Ethics Commission had few problems with that proposed change.
But last week, at its first meeting since the changes were proposed, the seven-member commission decried some of the revisions that would loosen the laws, its members said.
The proposed changes would allow more county employees to accept gifts. The current law allows only elected officials to accept tickets to events, with stipulations attached. The proposed law would allow more than 70 additional county employees to accept tickets, Dawson said.
"If the ethics law is about anything," she said, "it's about not letting employees accept gifts."
Also, the changes would allow county employees to represent outside clients in matters before the county - as long as no contingency fee is involved, the commission said. For example, an attorney who serves on the County Council could represent a client in front of the county's personnel board, Ethics Commission members said.
"I just don't know how this got in there," Dawson said of the proposed change.
If the bill becomes law, it would give the commission authority to exempt certain employees or boards from the ethics laws, at the request of the county executive, commission members said.
"It seems to me that it's too much authority," said commission Chairman Alan Hilliard Legum. "It's authority we don't want."
According to the commission, the proposed law also would allow council members to introduce and vote on legislation that affects their professions, as long as it affects all of the profession.
For example, the commission ruled in 1998 that then-Councilman Thomas W. Redmond, owner of a car-towing service, violated county ethics law when he pushed for passage of a bill changing the county's towing license ordinance.
He would apparently be allowed to introduce such legislation under the proposed law.
And the proposed changes would redefine what it means to be "doing business with the county." Employees cannot accept secondary employment or gifts from companies in business or seeking to do business with the county.
Currently, "doing business" is defined as having an agreement with the county worth $1,000. The proposal increases that amount to $5,000. The commission has agreed to push the council for a compromise of $2,500.
Despite its disappointment with many of the proposed changes, the commission applauded the proposed expansion of the law to cover quasi-public agencies. That change would require members of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. board to file public disclosure forms.
The corporation came under scrutiny four years ago when it was disclosed that board members had financial interest in companies that received loans from the corporation.