At the Tuesday, November 12 County Commissioners’ meeting, the county’s ad hoc Ethics Review Panel gave its report. The panel recommended no substantive changes to the existing Ethics Commission or Ethics Ordinance, and made those recommendations without any meaningful public input. In response, CAP Chair Kira Hamman spoke on behalf of the organization at the November 18 Commissioners’ meeting. What follows is a version of the comments made there that was sent as a letter to the editors of the Herald-Mail on November 25 but has yet to appear.
To the Editors:
We are writing on behalf of Citizens Above Partisanship, a nonpartisan political action committee focused on encouraging cooperative government in Washington County.
One of our organization’s key priorities is ethics in local government, and we are very concerned about the county’s existing Ethics Commission and Ethics Ordinance. Members of ethics commissions should never be under the authority of the same elected officials they are charged to investigate, as they currently are in Washington County. Furthermore, as recent incidents in county government illustrate, unethical actions do not always involve financial gain, yet that is all the current ordinance addresses. Finally, there is no mechanism currently in place to enforce penalties for ethics violations, and this lack of enforcement leads directly to a lack of accountability.
We were hopeful last year when Commissioners Meinelschmidt and Keefer chose to focus on these issues and appointed an ad hoc Ethics Review Panel to review and revise the county’s commission and ordinance. We were subsequently dismayed, following the commission’s November 12 meeting, that the panel’s report recommended no substantive changes to either the structure of the commission or the ordinance itself.
More concerningly, these recommendations were made with virtually no public input. The panel held one public hearing, on Tuesday, September 10. A small notice of the meeting appeared in the Herald-Mail at the end of the previous week. That’s it.
The hearing was not publicized via the County Commissioners’ email list. It did not appear on the county’s social media channels. No press release was sent out. And neither the hearing nor the minutes of other panel deliberations were, or are, mentioned on the county web site.
Unsurprisingly, nobody went.
Leaving aside how uncomfortably close this comes to a violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act, it is inconsistent with the principle of transparency in government that we hope and trust the Washington County Commissioners hold dear. Beyond that, even if the hearing had been well-publicized, it failed to garner any input. This should have automatically triggered additional hearings and attempts to collect feedback from the community. Ethics ordinances address the very integrity of our government and cannot meaningfully be discussed, let alone revised, without the participation of community stakeholders.
Therefore, we ask that the commissioners do the following:
- Re-convene an ad hoc Ethics Review Panel.
- Charge the panel to hold well-publicized meetings at a variety of locations around the county.
- Offer a well-publicized and robust option to give input online.
- Accept recommendations from the panel only after meaningful input from a diversity of stakeholders has been gathered, and no sooner than 90 days from the beginning of the process.
- Finally, make all deliberations public in the form of well-publicized open meetings with publicly available written minutes.
We ask that this process begin immediately.
Citizens Above Partisanship Executive Committee
It is our understanding that the County Commissioners are now considering holding a new public forum to discuss the Ethics Commission and Ordinance. We encourage all CAP members and supporters to reach out to them in support of such a forum, and to attend it if and when it occurs. We will keep you up to date as we hear more.