2020 | Gaithersburg

Gaithersburg changes its ethics code

Disclosure requirements limited to local connections

share this
Gaithersburg resized

Gaithersburg on Monday made changes to its ethics code involving enforcement of violations, as well as conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure requirements.

But the disclosure requirements would be limited to financial interests relevant to the city.

One change in the amended version is that city officials are prohibited from representing a party for a fee.

Another change applies to candidates for office. They must file disclosure statements within eight days of being notified of failing to file. The city can impose fines for ethics violations of up to $5,000 for individuals and up to $10,000 for groups.

The changes are meant to bring Gaithersburg into compliance with Maryland’s State Ethics Commission’s requirements.

Mayor Jud Ashman said at a previous meeting that the state has imposed the same disclosure requirements at all levels of government, and the commission found that the city’s code was out of compliance in 2015.

A previous version of an amended city ordinance introduced in November would have broadened the requirements for disclosures of real estate and business interests.

But Ashman proposed an amended ordinance that includes a “relevance threshold for disclosure” provision for real estate, business ownership and employment, he said at Monday’s meeting.

“The official would have to report, for example, if they have an ownership stake in Novavax, because the city interacts with Novavax on planning and zoning. However, if the official has an ownership stake in Apple, they wouldn’t have to report that, because why would that even be relevant?” he said.

Ashman, during a meeting last month, said he was concerned that financial disclosure requirements that were too broad would lead to the disclosure of private information that is “irrelevant to the public.”

Jennifer Allgair, the executive director of the State Ethics Commission, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Dec. 9 that the commission didn’t have a response to Ashman’s criticism. But, she wrote, the city “does not have a current local ethics law that meets the conflict of interest and financial disclosure requirements set by the Maryland General Assembly.”

“The State Ethics Commission will review any changes to the Gaithersburg ethics law submitted by the city and looks forward to working with the city toward its compliance with the local ethics standards established by the Maryland General Assembly,” she wrote.

Ashman reiterated his position on Monday.

“[The ethics code] needs to strike the right balance between getting the public all the information it needs in order to detect and deter unethical behavior, and preserve as much of the right of privacy for public officials as is reasonably possible,” he said.

“While the vast majority of what the state’s trying to do here is fine, there is some degree of overreach in it, and in our case, I believe it would work against the public interest,” he said.

The City Council on Monday voted 3-2 to approve Ashman’s version of the changes, which take into account whether a person’s financial interest have a connection to the city.

Council members Mike Sesma, Robert Wu and Neil Harris voted in favor of the ordinance.

Council Members Ryan Spiegel and Laurie-Anne Sayles voted “no,” saying only that they preferred the original amendments to the ethics code as introduced in November.

Wu asked City Attorney Lynn Board on Monday about the risks of having an ethics code that didn’t meet the state’s requirements. She replied that it could mean a legal challenge.

“There would be no monetary penalties or anything like that, but [the state] could go into court and have the court impose the compliant ordinance on the city,” she said.

Board said that if the city hired private counsel to fight the state’s requirements, it would cost $20,000 to $25,000. But in all likelihood, she said the city would handle the matter in-house without outside counsel.

“It’s really more of a time commitment [to the city],” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com