Why Does Jan Gardner Oppose Ethics Reform?
As reported by the Frederick News Post, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner submitted a proposed ethics reform bill for the county’s government to the county’s legislative delegation. The bill was regarded by some members of the delegation as fairly weak and one member, Senator Mike Hough, has proposed a more substantial ethics reform proposal.
From the article:
Initially, the delegation was asked to review a bill that was proposed by the League of Women Voters and Frederick County Ethics Task Force and supported by County Executive Jan Gardner (D) and a majority of the County Council.
But that bill was discussed — on a bipartisan basis — as a minor tweak to weak prohibitions on some campaign donations to elected officials.
Hough, R-District 4, and other delegation members said in January that they wanted a broader version of that prohibition, perhaps extending it to additional boards or commissions and to other types of pending decisions before those panels.
But Hough moved forward with a more far-reaching bill of his own, just two days before both measures were scheduled for discussion at a delegation meeting. While he touted the bill as “comprehensive reform,” Gardner said his proposal conflicted with existing law and “needs a lot of work.”
The bill proposed by Senator Hough would include the following provisions:
- Requiring that campaign donations of $500 or more be disclosed within 24 hours after they are received. Donations from any person or business entity that is employed by or contacted with the county would also have to be disclosed within 24 hours.
- Requiring that all non-elected members of decision-making boards and commissions be forced to step down once they open a campaign account, to avoid conflicts of interest.
- Prohibiting all businesses with pending bids or applications in front of the county from making campaign donations to the county executive, County Council or any former board or commission members who stepped down after filing for office. The prohibition would include lawyers or lobbyists who represent those entities.
The Frederick News-Post editorialized in its report that these restrictions would “drastically amend state law” but they really are pretty basic concepts that remove the appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest from those who serve in various offices in Frederick County.
Maryland legislators are prohibited from receiving donations during the 90-day legislative session. The purpose of this rule is to prevent conflicts of interest prior to the casting of votes. Given that the Frederick County Council is in session all year, Hough’s proposal would require that donations of $500 and above be disclosed within 48 hours of being received and be made available to the public, a requirement also placed upon the County Executive. It hardly seems like a drastic change to allow (rather than ban as is the case with state legislators) but disclose large contributions in a timely manner that the public could perceive as affecting the votes of council members.
It seems like a common sense approach and ethics 101. It is troubling Frederick County official can receive a check literally minutes before voting. Hough’s proposal doesn’t prevent such donations it simply demands a prompt public disclosure.
Like most citizens, Frederick County residents expect members of decision making boards to be unbiased and fair decision-makers. In order to combat all special interest influences, Hough’s proposal requires non-elected board members to step down within 48 hours of declaring their candidacy for elected office. Appointed citizen board members should not receive any campaign donations while sitting on a decision-making board. The potential for a conflict of interest and at least the appearance of impropriety in these circumstances should seem obvious.
Given the extensive power of the County Executive to award bids and contracts, Hough’s proposal that businesses that have pending bids or applications in front of the County be prohibited from making donations, and extending this prohibition to lawyers/lobbyists who represent these businesses, seems again like a common sense baseline for ethics rather than the draconian measure the Frederick News-Post portrays it as.
Despite having run on the issue of ethics in government, County Executive Gardner now opposes the Hough proposal. She makes claims that the reforms are unconstitutional and, despite the session being only weeks old, are introduced too late to pass this year.
So why is Jan Gardner now opposing these straight forward and fundamental ethics reforms to the still fairly new Frederick County government? Plenty of legislation is drafted and passed much later in the legislative session. There is no specific allegation of unconstitutionality for provisions banning donations from interested parties, or in the absence of bans require prompt public disclosure. Even the Frederick News Post, in carrying the water for Gardner’s opposition, called Hough’s reforms “some good provisions”, too good in fact because their effect would be “the perfect killing the good enough for now.” Utter nonsense from hypocritical defenders of the status quo who proclaim the value of ethics in government until actually faced with a challenge.
Here is an example of why the County Executive may really want to avoid these rules. Frederick County is negotiation with Comcast. The Frederick News-Post discussed this negotiation on April 16, 2016. The issues in the negotiations dealt with the county’s involvement with Comcast’s provision of service and collection of fees. Needless to say, Comcast has an enormous monetary interest in the outcome of these negotiations.
As detailed below, Gardner received a $500 donation from Comcast on March 9, 2016, while the negotiations with the county were ongoing.
Likewise, Gardner received a $500 donation from Ivan Lanier, a well known lobbyist promoting a downtown hotel and conference center which Gardner supported by pushing through legislation to raise taxes on surrounding hotels to pay for the project. Frederick County also gave the project a significant Tax Increment Funding (TIF) benefit.
Just a couple of examples. You can see why prompt disclosure of these donations, rather than being able to dump them into an annual report the following January, would make the County Executive uncomfortable.
These two contributions, by the way, represent about 10% of the $11,210.91 the County Executive raised last year according to the annual report of her campaign finance entity. A point that shows how significant they were beyond the actual dollar amount.
So, maybe we have a better idea why Jan Gardner talks the talk on ethics reform but balks when confronted with the real thing.
Below is the campaign fiance report for the county executive: