Ethics changes raise doubts

Proposed strengthening of city laws might go too far, O'Malley says

Council nepotism targeted

October 07, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley and the city's law department have raised concerns about a proposal to strengthen the city's ethics laws, saying it may go too far by requiring an additional 435 midlevel city employees to file financial disclosure forms.

The bill, called "Ethics: Raising the Bar," was drafted by the city's five-member Board of Ethics, which argues that the City Council needs to tighten its laws to bring it into line with state standards for ethical conduct.

In addition to requiring 43 percent more city employees to disclose their financial interests on forms submitted to the board (1,017 are now required to do so), the bill also proposes barring council members and other officials from hiring their children.

Six of the council's 19 members employ their children, and the question of whether the council should allow nepotism arose as a campaign issue during last month's primaries.

In an attempt to avoid the awkwardness of asking council members to fire family members, the ethics board suggested last week that the council include a grandfather clause. That would allow current council members to keep paying their children indefinitely but prohibit future council members from hiring their children.

O'Malley said yesterday that he had no objection to a grandfather clause and that he doesn't feel strongly that hiring relatives is a problem because council members have been doing it for decades.

The mayor noted that in his wife's politically active family, City Councilman J. Joseph Curran Sr., when he was floor leader for Mayor William Donald Schaefer, hired his son Martin E. "Mike" Curran as a clerk, which helped the younger Curran get his start in politics.

J. Joseph Curran Sr. was also the father of City Councilman Robert W. Curran and state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is the father of O'Malley's wife, District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley.

"There was no prohibition against [hiring adult children] before, when there were many councilmen who spoke very proudly, saying that `my father got me into politics by making me his clerk,'" O'Malley said.

The mayor said the current bill goes overboard by requiring so many midlevel city employees to file disclosure forms. That would allow the public or the news media to scrutinize the employees' ownership of property, businesses and stock, among other things.

"It's already hard enough to get people to fill out these forms," O'Malley said. "It's a huge administrative burden to raise the number of people who have to disclose."

Three of the city's 24 departments - law, police and housing - objected to the expansion of disclosure, but most endorsed the bill as a way to promote open government, according to letters filed by department heads.

The ethics bill is being debated by the City Council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee. The council is expected to pass some form of it by spring.

Some on the council, including council President Sheila Dixon, have expressed their support of a grandfather clause, saying it would be unfair to affect the income of council employees who were hired legally.

Three Democrats nominated for open council seats in the November elections next year - Belinda Conaway, Mary Pat Clarke and James B. Kraft - said they object to any grandfather clause that would keep the children of current council members on the payroll beyond the election.

"This is a very basic tenet of governing, that no matter how good these people might be, the public payroll is not for nepotism," said Clarke, a former council president who on Sept. 9 received the Democratic nomination for the council's new 14th District.

In a critique of the bill written Thursday, the city's law department said it would greatly expand the scope of the city's ethics laws. The report said one concern is that the bill doesn't outline procedures for hearings for people accused of unethical conduct.

The legislation also would increase the power of the board of ethics to initiate investigations and would allow the board to compel the police to help it with investigations.

Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr., the city solicitor, said yesterday that his department raised those concerns not to derail or delay passage of the bill, which has been held up for more than three years, in part because of the law department's review.

"These are topics of concern, not topics for termination" of the bill, said Zollicoffer. "The ethics laws need an overhaul, and we have no problem with that. But we need to dot our i's and cross our t's."

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