City ethics proposal is pulled

Bill sought to let officials take season tickets, change selection of board director

October 19, 2004|By Laura Vozzella and Doug Donovan | Laura Vozzella and Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley abruptly scrapped a bill yesterday that would have allowed elected city officials to accept season tickets to sporting events and given the mayor control over who directs Baltimore's Board of Ethics.

The bill also would have tightened one aspect of the ethics law - requiring the disclosure of certain gifts that currently do not have to be made public.

But government watchdog groups and other observers had criticized the other aspects of the bill, saying it would have opened the door to influence-peddling and compromised the director's independence.

The bill had been scheduled to be introduced at last night's City Council meeting. A few hours before it began, O'Malley's liaison to the council, Angela Gibson, said the bill was being withdrawn temporarily while some details were worked out.

But late yesterday afternoon, city officials said the bill was dead.

"It's not being introduced. It's nothing," said Ralph S. Tyler, the city solicitor. "This was some ideas that had been put together to look at and on reflection, the decision was not to pursue it."

A draft version of the bill called for changing the city ethics law governing gifts to elected officials.

Under the current law - adopted by the mayor and City Council in June amid a federal investigation into the council's hiring practices and acceptance of gifts - elected officials may accept tickets "to attend a specific charitable, cultural, sporting or political event, if given ... as a courtesy or ceremony to the office."

The draft would have removed the word "specific," which had been included in the current law at the ethics board's suggestion in order to exclude season or open-ended passes.

Tyler said the change would have made the city ethics law consistent with state law.

But James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said it would have been a bad idea.

"There certainly are occasions when it's in the public interest to have public officials present," Browning said, offering the opening of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre as an example. "But to have a permanent seat in front of the orchestra or on the [first] base line is only going to lead to undue influence."

The draft bill also called for changing how the ethics board's executive director is appointed.

Currently the director is the head of the city's Department of Legislative Services, a civil service employee appointed by the mayor, solicitor, president of the Johns Hopkins University, deans of the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools, a City Council member and director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The draft called for having the solicitor, a mayoral appointee, or the solicitor's designee serve as executive director.

"To have someone beholden to the mayor to control the agenda is not in the interest of good ethics," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who recently left the city Board of Ethics to join the state's ethics commission.

But Kristen M. Mahoney, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice and a member of the ethics board, said there is no need to distance the director - who does not vote - from the administration. The board itself is closely tied to the mayor, she noted, with one of its five members appointed by the mayor, one by his solicitor, and three jointly by the mayor and council.

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