Questions Arise With Changes To Ethics Law

SNOW HILL — In a case of “who watches the watchmen,” one Worcester County Commissioner is pushing for the county’s Ethics Board to be included in the list of agencies affected by the new ethics law.

“I just think they ought to be included … to me it just makes sense,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

Legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly last year is forcing counties to amend their current ethics laws to be at least equivalent to, if not stricter than, the standard state law.

“The bottom line is that the state ethics law has always been more stringent than what was required of counties,” said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.

It was Bloxom’s job to draft appropriate changes to the county’s former ethics law in order to bring it up to code. However, he informed the commission that the changes are relatively minor.

The ethics law covers everything from dealing with conflict of interest to use of prestige of office to solicitation and acceptance of gifts, among other issues. The main changes, according to Bloxom, are about elected officials and selected employees need to make financial disclosures.

“These things will be on record,” he said.

Also mentioned in Bloxom’s draft is the county Ethics Board, which is the entity responsible for reviewing complaints lodged against officials and employees suspected of ethics violations. The board is appointed by the commissioners and advised by the county attorney.

“That board is the complaint source,” said Shockley.

Because of its authority and involvement in investigating possible ethics violations, Shockley argued that it was only logical that the board adhere to the same rules.

“To me, holding the ethics board to the same principles and standards … it’s not even something I have a question about,” Shockley said. “This is a jury of your peers.”

Besides Shockley’s concern, Commissioner Louise Gulyas felt the new, stricter law was somewhat invasive.

“They don’t need to know everything about me,” she said.

However, Gulyas called the law “a necessary evil” and should serve to keep “everybody basically honest.”

Bloxom reminded the commission the law needs to be on the books by Oct. 1 and thus should be reviewed quickly.

“It’s got to be passed,” he said.

The law will be revisited on Sept. 20 at a hearing where any further concerns can be discussed, including a possible expansion of the law to include the ethics board.