In response to the onerous new ethics regulations forced upon Maryland towns by the General Assembly in 2010, Commissioner Tad duPont resigned from his post on Friday, August 23, 2013. He had said in public on several occasions that if the town was forced into adopting the State Ethics Commission’s “Model B” (specifically, the financial disclosure and conflict of interest standards offered by the state for smaller jurisdictions), he would be unwilling to continue his term as a Commissioner.
At the Commissioners meeting on Wednesday evening, August 28th, Commission President Mike Vlahovich read aloud Mr. duPont’s letter of resignation, in which Mr. duPont said that he found the ethics requirements under the new law to be a huge invasion of privacy. He also said that he believed it would severely limit the town of St. Michaels from attracting qualified persons to serve on the town Commission. In the interests of protecting the privacy of his own business patrons and family members, his letter said that had no choice but to resign his post.
After reading the letter, Commissioner Mike Vlahovich said that the resignation “leaves a huge hole in this Commission.”
The next steps for the Commissioners will be to appoint a replacement by majority vote to serve out Mr. duPont’s term, which continues through June of 2014.
After 3 years of debate, discussion and action after the 2010 state ethics law was put in place, the town of St. Michaels has not yet formed a final response to the state ethics commission. Town Attorney Chip McLeod was present at Wednesday’s meeting, and offered a recap of the present standings of the town and the State Ethics Commission.
The town initially asked for a full exemption from the law, as did hundreds of small towns in Maryland. St. Michaels was granted an exemption to the state law requiring regulation of lobbyists, but not regarding conflict of interest or financial disclosure.
The Commissioners met a number of times since 2011 to address the issue, and even drafted a new ethics ordinance with the assistance of the town’s ethics commission. That ordinance was never introduced, because the Commissioners decided in 2012 to pursue a different strategy suggested by McLeod. That strategy was to offer the state’s “Model B” with an additional paragraph granting specific rights to the town’s ethics commission to grant exemptions in individual cases. That request was denied by the state. After that denial, the Commissioners met twice and revised the ordinance that was created in 2011 with even more stringent financial disclosure requirements than the current ethics policy in place.
The state has asked St. Michaels to either submit their new ethics ordinance or a report on their progress by September 12, 2013.
Commissioner Ann Borders said that she had done homework on the issue, and found that some 80 jurisdictions were granted full exemptions to the ethics law. Oxford, Trappe and Rock Hall are among the 80 granted exemptions. The exemptions are granted based on size of population relative to town budget and payroll. It is believed that factors such as St. Michaels’ police force and public works department size, as well as funds for Miles Point are among the reasons that St. Michaels was not granted the full exception, in spite of the town’s relatively small population. The fact that the town requires a larger staff in response to the tourist trade puts it in a different position than towns of similar population in Maryland.
Acting upon the advice of Attorney Chip McLeod, the Commissioners may ask the state to re-consider a full exemption to the ethics law, given that the issue has been such a philosophical dilemma for the town, including the fact that the issue has resulted in an action as serious as the resignation of a Commissioner.
McLeod reminded the Commissioners that they have had an ethics ordinance in place for some time, including an ethics commission and a procedure through which anyone could pursue an ethics complaint against a public servant.
The Commissioners introduced both the revised town ordinance and the state’s Model B ordinance into the record, so that they will be able to vote upon either one of those options at a subsequent meeting. Attorney McLeod is preparing a response to the State in which an update of the town’s progress will be ready by the September 12th deadline.
Several members of the public spoke at the meeting. One of them was Ted Doyle, representing the Talbot County Taxpayers Association, who wrote a letter to the state against the town’s request for the initial exemption. Doyle said that his group did not believe that it was necessary for the town to have to go to the extent of “Model B”, but that public officials should be required to disclose any ownership in property anywhere, not just in Maryland, and that all sources of income (but not amounts) should be disclosed as well. He said that with the inclusion of those two items in the town’s ethics code, his group will support the town’s request for a full exemption from the state law.
Commissioner Vlahovich asked members of the public to participate in the process by writing letters to the State Ethics Commission. The public can reach the State Commission at: 45 Calvert S., 3rd floor, Annapolis, MD 21401.
The Commissioners will take up the issue again at their next meeting, on September 11, 2013.