ANNAPOLIS — Frederick County’s state senators made their pitches on Thursday for competing ethics reform bills at a Senate committee hearing.
The outlook for either bill is unclear, since neither has the full support of the county’s delegation.
The measure that Sen. Ron Young, D-District 3, presented to the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is backed by County Executive Jan Gardner and community groups.
Young acknowledged from the start that Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4, his colleague in the chamber, would present a different ethics bill to the committee and that Hough’s bill had garnered support from a majority of the county’s General Assembly delegation.
“I’m here today to still present the original bill that was brought to us by the county, which we hoped would be passed,” Young said.
He was joined by a panel of supporters: Gardner (D), the president of the Frederick County League of Women Voters, a former Frederick County Task Force member and County Council President Bud Otis, who is unaffiliated.
“We do appreciate him introducing this bill. It is a bill that went through a very long public process,” Gardner said of Young.
The bill — considered the simpler of the dueling county proposals — amends the current county law to include Planning Commission members under the section of state law that restricts campaign donations. The bill subjects Planning Commission members who are running for elected office to the same provisions of the ethics law that pertain to the county executive and County Council.
The addition to the law would restrict donations from individuals and organizations with applications before the Planning Commission while they’re running for office.
Thomas Gill, a former member of the ethics task force and a lawyer in the city of Frederick, said Young’s bill was narrowly tailored to solve a “recognized problem” of developer contributions attempting to influence Frederick County decision-makers.
“[State law] currently makes campaign contributions by developer applicants to the County Executive and County Council Members illegal,” Gill wrote in testimony for the committee. “... Adding Planning Commission Members running for County Council or County Executive closes a loophole.”
Several witnesses testified that the change in state law would complement more stringent local ethics ordinances that passed at the county level.
County ethics rules are codified both in state law and with a county ordinance.
The state law deals with campaign finance and ex parte communications on issues related to land-use decisions, which are governed by state law. Ex parte refers to communications in which not all of the parties involved in pending applications are present.
Hough said the proposal introduced by Young does not go far enough in reform.
“The bill you heard earlier was actually rejected by the delegation,” he told the committee on Thursday. “The delegation, after having our own process, decided to move forward with a more comprehensive bill which addressed a series of issues and what we saw as flaws with the county’s current ethics proposal. And this legislation, we believe, could make Frederick County really a model of good government.”
Hough’s bill has three main provisions:
- Requiring that all non-elected members of decision-making boards and commissions be forced to step down once they open a campaign account, to avoid conflicts of interest.
- Requiring campaign donations of $500 or more to be disclosed to the county’s ethics commission shortly after they are received.
- Prohibiting contributions from any business entity that has a bid or an application pending before the county government.
Gardner and others have said the broad language in the bill presents legal issues and concerns about implementation.
Hough’s initial “instant reporting” provision for donations to candidates over $500 has been amended from 24 hours to a longer period of seven days. The duty of disclosing those donations has shifted to the Frederick County Ethics Commission.
Gardner testified that the commission is currently an all-volunteer board that meets on a monthly basis.
Gardner said the proposed law is uneven, requiring significantly greater reporting burdens on current county lawmakers and former county board members, without requiring the same disclosures of other candidates.
She said if the bill were referred for a “summer study” — when legislation is reviewed further rather than immediately passed — she would commit to considering further ethics reforms.
Hough said he was trying to amend his bill to address concerns as they come to him, but as soon as he finds one solution, other complaints crop up.
Gardner and others complained about a lack of transparency as Hough moves his bill forward. She noted that the amendments presented to the committee on Thursday had not been discussed or approved by the delegation as a group, and other amendments are still in the works.
Delegate Carol Krimm, D-District 3A, one of the sponsors of the House version of Young’s bill, could not attend Thursday’s bill hearing.
She exchanged emails on Wednesday evening with Sandra Benson Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly. Earlier this week, Brantley sent Krimm a letter concluding that at least one facet of Hough’s bill — a ban on campaign contributions — is overly broad and could be considered unconstitutional by a court.
In an email Wednesday evening, Brantley wrote that even after the amendments Hough has introduced, there is a “risk” that a court could interpret the bill as “overbroad.”
After the meeting, it didn’t appear that the sides were any closer to resolution.
“It is a bad bill. It was written in secret,” Gardner said. “I still believe it was all politics and the intent was always to kill the county ethics bill.”
Hough echoed a similar sentiment, the opposite way.
“I don’t think it’s good at all. As soon as that other bill went in, it was basically a poison pill against ours,” Hough said.