Ethics law could use a legislative overhaul

Kai Hagen

June 23, 2005

What's the first word you think of when I say "politics?"

It's a good bet the answer wasn't "ethics."

Even though politics and ethics don't connect in games of word association, there is an important relationship.

Politics is the art or science of government, the art or science of guiding or influencing policy, and the art or science of winning and holding control over a government.

In contrast, ethics is the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. It's a set of moral principles or values, a theory or system of values, or the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.

Put them together and the purpose of ethics laws in government and politics is to ensure those we elect abide by a code of conduct that facilitates or encourages public confidence in the processes and policies that affect our lives.

That's a tall order, but given the alternative, it's a vital pursuit.

For decades, the country has engaged in broad efforts to increase public confidence in government through the use of ethics rules that stress appearances and procedures.

That includes Frederick County, where we have an Ethics Commission and an ethics ordinance, which covers conflicts of interest, financial disclosure and lobbying.

The ordinance isn't perfect, however. Time and experience have exposed various flaws.

And for a number of years, Frederick County Commission President John "Lennie" Thompson Jr. has been on a crusade to strengthen the ordinance, to close the worst loopholes, and to hold the Board of County Commissioners to a higher standard.

Thompson has advocated for changes that would require more disclosure of compensation received from lobbying activities. He's been trying to pass a bill that would require meetings between commissioners and developers concerning land-use issues to be disclosed, and he supports an ethics bill that would require disclosure of ex parte communications between applicants for changes in land-use laws and the county planning staff.

He has attempted to prohibit developers from making campaign contributions to commissioners if the developer has a land-use issue pending, and prohibit commissioners from accepting such contributions during a pending action.

If that sounds reasonable to you, you might be surprised to learn that, after seven years of fighting to plug some of the holes in our ethics ordinance, the result is, well, zip.

Commissioner Jan H. Gardner has supported the proposed reforms throughout. However, all but one have died in Winchester Hall, and the governor vetoed the one that passed.

The most recent effort was a resolution, introduced by Gardner, asking that board members running for re-election not solicit or accept campaign contributions from those who have business before the board.

In a repeat of earlier efforts to reform the ethics ordinance, Commissioners Michael L. Cady, John R. Lovell Jr. and Bruce L. Reeder not only opposed the proposal, but also took great offense at the suggestion it was necessary.

Well into their second terms as commissioners, however, Thompson and Gardner are convinced it is necessary.

Their seven years in the role has served to increase their belief that the playing field is not level, and such changes are vital to maintaining fair and representative government in Frederick County. They're also certain the average resident supports these sorts of reforms.

Commissioner Lovell directly challenged that assertion.

So, what do you think?

Developer X has a rezoning application pending before the commissioners. Any commissioner would violate the ordinance if they solicited or accepted a personal "gift" from that developer. But it's perfectly legal to ask for and/or receive a campaign contribution.

How does that sound? Some people would call it a bribe. Other folks might be just concerned about the appearance of impropriety.

Either way, would you support an ordinance that prohibited "knowingly and willfully soliciting or accepting campaign contributions from a person, business entity or their representatives with pending business before the County Commissioners?"

Sounds pretty basic and reasonable, doesn't it?

It must be pointed out that the commissioners whose campaigns have received thousands of dollars from the same developers that have been actively pursuing zoning changes, text amendments and the like, are the same commissioners who have consistently opposed the ethics reforms.

I'm not accusing commissioners Cady, Lovell and Reeder of anything in particular. I'm just noting a few facts.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at