Gaithersburg is considering adding additional business, financial and property disclosure requirements to its ethics code.
The changes are necessary to comply with Maryland State Ethics Commission requirements, City Attorney Lynn Board said Monday.
The proposed changes, which were introduced on Nov. 2, would include:
- Redefining a financial interest as more than $1,000 in the past three years, or ownership of securities more than 3% of a business entity by an official, employee or their spouse
- A prohibition on former lobbyists who become city employees or officials from participating in matters for one year
- A prohibition on officials and employees representing a party for a fee on any matter involving the city
- A requirement that candidates for office file disclosure statements within eight days of being notified of failing to file the statement
- Disclosures for real property, regardless of location, and disclosures of business interests, regardless of whether they have done business with the city
- A fine of up to $5,000 for individuals who have ethics violations and up to $10,000 for lobbyists with ethics violations
Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman on Monday said he supports all of the proposed changes to the city’s code, except for those that mandate disclosure of private information that is “irrelevant to the public.”
“For instance, if I own a bunch of stock in Novavax, and they’re coming to us with applications to build a big campus at 700 Quince Orchard, I should disclose that. And frankly I should recuse myself from that process,” he said. “But if I have that same ownership stake in Apple, how would that be relevant? How would it serve the public interest to know about my ownership take in Apple or any company that has no relationship to the city of Gaithersburg?”
Ashman explained in the meeting that he has worked on amending the city’s ethics code for the past 12 years. He said that in 2010, he and other council members passed an updated ordinance that brought the code up to date.
“The old ordinance would have allowed an official to accept tickets to sporting events from entities that had or were trying to do business with the city,” he said.
“I was proud of the work, and I think everyone was pretty happy with it, because what we had was an ethics code whose gift limits, conflict definitions and disclosure requirements were well-tailored to the types of ethical considerations that could occur at the municipal level.”
But in the next General Assembly session in 2011, Ashman said, the legislature passed a new ethics law that imposed the same disclosure requirements at all levels of government. He said the law came in response to ethics scandals in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.
“What the state did was overreach,” Ashman said. “They provided a new model ordinance with language that was harder to read and understand than our 2010 ordinance. Much of the conflict situations that it spells out do not apply to city affairs.”
Ashman said Gaithersburg amended its ethics ordinance again in 2015, but didn’t adopt the same disclosure requirements as the state.
“In our ordinance, city officials only had to disclose property they owned if it was located in the city, or if it was acquired in conjunction with some entity doing business with the city. Otherwise, why would it be relevant to the public?” he said.
The state ethics commission, Ashman said, found that Gaithersburg’s ethics code didn’t comply with state law.
“I disagree 100%. In fact, not only do I think that our ordinance effectively serves our community’s needs, it makes more sense and strikes a better balance than the state model,” he said.
The key to an effective ethics code, Ashman said, is a balance between giving the public necessary information in order to “detect and deter conflicts of interest” and preserving some privacy for public officials.
“The danger of requiring these onerous disclosures is that they could create a chilling effect, dissuading perfectly good candidates from wanting to serve the city but don’t think it’s worth the invasion of their privacy,” he said.
Ashman suggested an ordinance that didn’t include the broad language on financial disclosures. City Council members said they were open to the idea, but wanted to wait until after the public comment period ends on Dec. 18.
A policy discussion and a possible vote is scheduled for Jan. 4.
Ashman said he hopes that recent turnover on the state ethics commission will mean that it will be more favorable in considering the individual circumstances of localities.
“And if not, let them take us to court, because I think we’d ultimately prevail,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com