Ethics Changes Worry Wicomico

SALISBURY – Wicomico County Council members are concerned that new state requirements on county ethic laws are too intrusive.

County Attorney Edward Baker explained that a revision of the county’s ethics law comes as a result of state legislation requiring all counties and municipalities to revamp their ethics law to make it consistent with the state law.

“Some of the counties are beginning to express concern because of the additional requirements,” he said.

As Baker presented the County Council with the new copy of the ethics law, a completely new section requiring elected officials and candidates for elected officials to provide a financial disclosure seemed to cause the most concern among council members.

According to the new law, required contents of the statement will include interests in real property, interests in corporations and partnerships, interests in business entities doing business with county, gifts, employment with or interests in entities doing business with Wicomico County, indebtedness to entities doing business with county, a statement filed under this section shall include a schedule of the immediate family members of the individual employed by the county in any capacity at any time during the reporting period, and sources of income.

“It requires extensive financial disclosures,” Baker said. “The form is about 14 pages long.”

Councilman Bob Culver pointed out that elected officials financial disclosure will become public record once submitted. Council Vice President Joe Holloway added that it is going to cause people to become reluctant to serve.

“It is very invasive,” Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman said.

Baker said that some jurisdictions extend the requirement of submitting a financial disclosure to their boards and commissions but he suggested not doing the same in Wicomico County.

“For the primary reason that most of boards are volunteers,” he said.

The new ethics law provides that employees and members of boards and commissions only have to disclose gifts received and conflicts of interest.

“So our boards and commissions will hopefully not have a major problem with this,” Baker said.

The new ethics law also changes the definition of gifts. Baker said the county’s current code concerning gifts is short and simple but the new state requirements expand it greatly.

“Our gifts are $25 and above, this drops it to $20,” he said. “The whole concept is regardless of the dollar amount and the gift it would impair the impartiality and the independence of judgment and you cannot accept it. If you believe you are being bribed you cannot take it.”

Baker said he cannot explain why the state is now requiring a financial disclosure from elected officials but the result of a recent court case had the state come to realize there is great disparity in what is a conflict of interest from one county to another.

“The logical feeling is if it is conflict of interest in Wicomico why isn’t it a conflict of interest in Worcester,” he said.

Once the new code is adopted, elected officials will have to provide the forms no later than April 30 of each year. Baker has sent the county’s revised ethics law to the state that is in the process of reviewing all counties.

“I realize that this is invasive but I tell you what, when you open yourself up to this it’s what you have to do,” Joe Holloway said.