Ethics and sprawl

June 05, 2007

For those sickened by unbridled development, overcrowded schools, clogged highways and loss of green space, Frederick County has a potential antidote for suburban sprawl. A new county ethics law approved this year by the Maryland General Assembly and signed just weeks ago by Gov. Martin O'Malley uses a "sunshine" provision - and limits on campaign contributions - to help manage growth.

Since Friday, Frederick County commissioners have been required to publicly disclose their every communication regarding pending development, whether it's from an applicant or an opponent. Under the law, if any developer has donated more than a token sum to a commissioner's political campaign, the commissioner can't vote on any business related to that person.

How will this work? Say you're a builder who has applied to have a property rezoned or just an average guy on the street, and you have an opinion about the rezoning application. If you talk, e-mail, make a phone call or write to any of the county's five commissioners, that conversation will have to be disclosed to the general public. In the case of a call or face-to-face meeting, that will require a commissioner to write a summary of the talk and submit it to the county's ethics monitor.

If a developer donates more than $100 to a sitting commissioner's political campaign, the donor has just seven days to disclose that fact to the monitor. From that point on, the commissioner in question would have to recuse himself from voting on any of the contributor's pending business before the county, from planning and zoning decisions to water and sewer plan amendments and even agricultural easements.

Failure to comply with any of the provisions of the ethics law could result in a criminal penalty. A violation is a misdemeanor subject to a possible $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

The law is more sweeping than the county commissioners had originally intended (including development opponents' communications was a decision made by the county's legislative delegation), but not beyond the pale. Last month, state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler determined that it passed constitutional muster despite the limit it imposes on campaign donations. The county is in the process of hiring someone to serve as ethics monitor, a full-time post.

Frederick voters have demonstrated a distaste for sprawl. They booted out county leaders perceived as pro-development in last fall's election. The new law is designed to address the backroom deals and financial favors that go hand-in-hand with poor planning. If it works for Frederick, it can work for the rest of the state as well.

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