SALISBURY – The term transparency won over the majority of the City Council this week who voted to have businesses entering into the agreements with the city declare all partners and owners versus the minority who titled the legislation invasive.
A new section has been proposed to be added to the City Code titled, Business Disclosure Form Required, and the provisions require any vendors who contract with Salisbury for more than $3,000 in a single agreement or $10,000 for the fiscal year to fully reveal all partners or owners with more than a 5 percent stake in the company. It would mean that all parties in a LLC or all officers in a corporation would also have to be known before contracting with the city.
Before the legislative agenda was adopted on Monday evening, Councilwoman Laura Mitchell attempted to remove the ordinance and remand it back to work session for further discussion. The motion failed when the majority of the council voted to have the ordinance remain on the agenda for consideration that night.
When the ordinance was up for approval, Mitchell started off by listing several concerns, such as the applicant being required to submit their social security number and date of birth.
“That is an identity theft case waiting to happen,” she said.
Mitchell went on to state the council majority is claiming the intention of the ordinance is rooted in transparency purposes but the forms will not be available to the public unless they request a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“How does that help with transparency if no one is going to see the information?,” Mitchell asked.
She added the ordinance would go into effect the date of passage and felt that the Procurement Office would have to instantly issue stop work orders for every current project being conducted with the City while the forms are being processed.
Mitchell offered an alternative to have a person filing or bidding on a job for the city to file an affidavit of whether or not they have a conflict of interest and the Procurement office or Board of Appeals would be notified.
“I am not against transparency … there is a better way to do this,” she said. “This is invasive and does not serve the … transparency purpose … I do not believe the public is going to know anymore unless they are paying for a FOIA request and are waiting 30 days at which time the case is already done.”
Councilwoman Shanie Shields stated although she signed the petition to have the new ethics law go into effect she too felt the business ownership form is invasive.
“Most of us that are City of Salisbury residents and have lived here all our lives, we know the people that work here in Salisbury,” she said. “This is invasive … when you have lack of trust, suspicion and paranoia it is seen as going after certain business people in this community.”
Councilman Tim Spies stated every poll and every election cycle brings in a call for greater government transparency from the federal government down to the local governments.
“Our idea is to have equal transparency at the local level and I fully support this because that is what we have been after for years, the public has asked for it for years…but what have we done going towards transparency and the answer is, not very far at all,” he said. “Here is where we do go forward.”
Council Vice President Deborah Campbell agreed the ordinance was initiated due to an outcry from the public for greater transparency.
“They want to know where their money is being spent and with whom, and they were very frustrated when they couldn’t find out,” she said.
Campbell pointed out that most businesses already file similar declarations on the state level, and Salisbury’s one page-form will be no more difficult. She advised City Solicitor Mark Tilghman if he were to come up with an amendment that would allow a vendor to be exempt on the municipal level if they had already gone through the process on a state level, she would make a motion to include that clause at the time of second reading.
“The notion that this is invasive, and it is improper to know who the public’s money is being spent with is just silly, and the public does want to know,” Campbell said.
Council President Terry Cohen concluded the ordinance is a transparency bill plain and simple.
“I have heard tonight, invasive, well we are not asking anyone to file their full tax returns or their accounting records,” she said. “We are just saying please declare who your beneficial owners are 5 percent and above, that’s it.”
The City Council voted 3-2 with Mitchell and Shields opposed to approve the ordinance that will instate businesses entering into agreements or filing appeals with the City of Salisbury will be required to provide business ownership information.