Kamenetz proposes tougher Baltimore County ethics laws

Issues addressed include financial disclosure, secondary employment

November 02, 2011|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

In a move intended to shore up confidence in government, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz on Wednesday proposed to place public officials' financial disclosure forms online and add teeth to a charter rule that prohibits County Council members from state employment.

The proposal, which Kamenetz has asked the County Council to introduce Monday, follows Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver's decision to quit his state job after revelations that it apparently violated the charter.

Kamenetz said his legislation is "not merely reacting to recent events," and that he has been working on the bill for at least four months, but a top aide later said the item on County Council members' jobs was "a late addition."

"It was added after the discovery that certain charter violations did not have any enforcement remedy within county government," said Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff.

The wide-ranging bill also would permanently bar former county employees from lobbying on issues they worked on, and prohibit employees from accepting gifts from people who do business with the county.

"It's the right thing to do," Kamenetz said in an interview. "I want to make sure that people have confidence in the decisions that county government makes. And that will allow people to accept those decisions more readily. … I don't want the public to second-guess any county employee."

The disclosure forms — which include information such as real estate holdings and sources of income — would be published online starting next May. Those who must file such disclosures include council members and other elected officials; department heads; the schools superintendent; and members of the planning and appeals boards.

The proposal would impose fees on people who file financial disclosure or lobbying reports late.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, called Kamenetz's proposals "very important steps forward."

"Recent events have shown that the ethics laws and disclosure [requirements] need to be tightened up," she said, mentioning Oliver's state job and the bribery trial of state Sen. Ulysses Currie, in which witnesses testified that Currie had not disclosed his work for Shoppers Food Warehouse on state financial disclosure forms

Posting financial disclosure forms online "is important because it allows citizens to evaluate specific conflicts that they may be concerned about," said Wichmann, whose group has called for state legislators' forms to be published online.

Still, Wichmann said the proposal would be better if it would make officials update their disclosure forms when their financial situation significantly changes, such as with a new job. Officials file the forms annually, so someone could potentially hide a conflict of interest for a year.

The bill would give the ethics commission authority to enforce a section of the county charter prohibiting County Council members from working for the state or county agencies.

Last week, Oliver said he would leave his job at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. County officials have said there appear to be no penalties if a council member violates the employment rule.

Kamenetz's legislation also addresses conflicts of interest among County Council members, clarifying when they must disclose a possible conflict on a voting matter.

Last month, Oliver voted on two resolutions that expressed support for loans to private businesses from the Department of Business and Economic Development and authorized smaller county loans for the firms.

The county code prohibits officials from participating in matters involving an employer, but doesn't spell out how they should disclose the conflict. The county ethics commission enforces those rules, said County Attorney Mike Field.

Kamenetz's proposal to change the way council members disclose conflicts was not related to Oliver, Field said, and was part of an early draft of the bill.

Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Oliver said he was in a meeting and would call back. He could not be reached for comment later.

County employees would face a number of new rules if Kamenetz's proposal becomes law:

•Current county law prohibits employees from participating in matters in which a child or spouse has an interest. Under the proposal, they also would have to recuse themselves from matters involving their parents and siblings.

•Former employees would be barred from ever being paid to represent a person or company on matters the employee had worked on for the county. Current law lets people lobby if they wait a year after leaving their county employment.

•Employees would not be allowed to accept sporting and event tickets from people who do business with the county.

Also, contractors would not be allowed to bid on a project if they employ someone who has ever had a hand in writing bid specifications for that project.

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