City Council bill would alter ethics board

Bill adds council member to panel, removes director

March 09, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

City Council members, who felt they were unfairly criticized for hiring relatives and accepting gifts, are considering a bill to remake the ethics board that chastised them for those practices.

A bill introduced last night calls for adding a council member and a council appointee to the five-member board. It also would remove the city's director of legislative services, Avery Aisenstark, as its director - a nonvoting staff position.

Some council members have blamed Aisenstark for the allegations of ethical lapses, which have been the focus of news media attention and a federal investigation. They say Aisenstark, who is responsible for drafting and researching legislation for the council, should have done a better job of making members aware of ethics rules, particularly since they say hiring relatives and accepting gifts were long-standing practices.

Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who proposed the bill, would not discuss why it proposes to remove Aisenstark.

"I don't want to get into personalities," Young said. "I want to keep it clean."

Aisenstark declined to comment.

Having a council member on the board would help the rest of the council gain a better understanding of ethics rules, Young said. "The council member will bring us clear and concise information about what we can and what we cannot do," he said.

Having a council appointee, who would be chosen from the general public, would give Baltimoreans "a little more faith in what goes on in City Hall," Young added.

But at least one council member questioned whether his colleagues should be seeking influence over a board that polices their ethics. "You shouldn't have the ethics board folks beholden to the council," said Councilman Robert W. Curran. "It should be separate from political influence."

Curran heads the council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, to which the bill was referred for a hearing. He added that he was keeping an open mind about the bill and would give it a fair hearing.

The board is made up of the mayor or his designee; the city solicitor (a mayoral appointee) or his designee; and three others appointed by the mayor.

Questions about the council's ethics were raised in a July article in The Sun, which revealed a majority of council members had relatives on their City Hall staff and received gifts such as free parking and movie passes.

The article prompted U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to launch an investigation into the council's finances, hiring practices and dealings with two local businessmen. Council members were subpoenaed in September as part of a continuing grand jury investigation. Members of the all-Democratic council members call the probe politically motivated. DiBiagio is an appointee of President Bush.

In October, the Board of Ethics found that council members violated ethics law by accepting passes from Arrow Parking; the company has business pending before the council. It also found that President Sheila Dixon, John L. Cain and Pamela V. Carter had violated the law by hiring siblings.

Council members reacted angrily at an October meeting, saying that hiring relatives and accepting gifts were longstanding practices. They also said they had submitted financial disclosure forms to Aisenstark for years that revealed their employment of relatives, but Aisenstark did not warn them that the practice was questionable.

At the time, Aisenstark said the council's criticism was "factually wrong," but he declined to elaborate.

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