A Baltimore City Council hearing yesterday on a proposed ethics law that claims to be "raising the bar" on the conduct of elected and city officials was dominated by questions from council members about what free tickets they could accept.
In the past few weeks, council members have received complimentary invitations to the opening of the Hippodrome Theatre, a show at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, an exhibit opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and have been offered passes -- yet again -- to the 1st Mariner Arena.
Councilman Robert W. Curran presented the invitations to illustrate how the council is bombarded with such gifts.
Councilman John L. Cain said the existing and proposed ethics rules are so confusing it is difficult to know what to accept.
"I propose that we rewrite this section so it is clear ... so no one can accuse us of something we didn't do," Cain said.
Council members have been chastised by local ethics officials for accepting certain gifts, and federal investigators have subpoenaed their financial records as part of a five-month-long investigation.
Cain and others also questioned revised rules about which relatives council members can employ.
One proposed revision would prohibit council members from hiring their children. Currently the law prohibits only "minor" children. Six council members employ adult sons and daughters.
The bill, modeled after state ethics rules, has been in the making for nearly four years under Mayor Martin O'Malley and has been before the council since July
The Sun reported in July that 10 of 19 council members had hired relatives as paid assistants and that all had accepted free parking passes, entry to movies and events at 1st Mariner Arena. Council members have returned the parking passes, and many have sent back the arena passes, which were again offered Jan. 15.
Ethics officials ruled in October that council members violated ethics rules by accepting the free parking passes. In addition, the panel said three council members who hired siblings as assistants -- Cain, Pamela V. Carter and council President Sheila Dixon -- breached ethics rules.
Cain accused Avery Aisenstark, the Board of Ethics' executive director, of not educating the council on ethics laws provisions. Aisenstark challenged the assertion, and Cain agreed that the council had been briefed.
Millie Tyssowski of the Baltimore City League of Women Voters testified that she hoped council members would not grandfather in those existing employees. "When the public sees a relative hired by a public official they put it in the same category as graft," she said.