Ethics law changes pondered in Arundel

Officials agree to tighten proposed amendments

July 22, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County officials said last night that they will tighten some proposed changes to the county ethics law that had been criticized as too lax.

But opponents of the proposed changes said they are still not satisfied, and the County Council put off further discussion until next month.

"We're only getting started," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog group that is against many of the proposed changes.

The changes were brought before the council last month by County Executive Janet S. Owens. She has said they are an effort to make the county's ethics law similar to state law.

Browning told council members at last night's meeting they should "resist the argument that conformity is good." Power rests with a smaller number of people at the county level, he said, so a different approach to ethics oversight is justified.

Browning also said he would continue to fight a proposed change that would allow council members to vote on legislation that affects their own profession.

Before the changes can be passed, the state ethics commission must approve them. Yesterday, the commission sent a letter to the county attorney expressing a preliminary opinion about some of the changes. It was written in response to concerns raised by the Anne Arundel ethics commission about the proposed changes.

The state commission said it would not approve a change that would allow members of the County Council to represent clients before other county agencies. For example, a councilman who is also an attorney would be able to represent a client before the county personnel board.

The state commission also wrote that it would not approve a change to allow appointed county officials to accept tickets to events from lobbyists and others, as long as they met certain requirements.

M. Peter Moser, an attorney helping the county write the new law, said he would make the appropriate adjustments on both matters.

The state commission also wrote that it wants further explanation of the county's proposed change to its policy regarding relatives.

Under the current law, council members and members of other county boards are prohibited from voting on legislation that affects uncles, aunts, nieces, grandparents and other family members.

The proposed changes would narrow the prohibition to spouses, children, parents and siblings. Council members also would not have to disclose if distant relatives work for the county, said Betsy K. Dawson, executive director of the county ethics commission.

Council members Ronald C. Dillon Jr. and Cathleen M. Vitale have been disqualified from several votes because they are related to public safety workers.

Mike Collins, a member of the county Republican Central Committee, pushed the council for a system in which its members disclose their conflict, and then are allowed to vote.

"If it's out in the open, it's not a conflict," Collins said. "We've elected you because we trust you."

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