General Assembly Journal 2007 - Volume 5
When someone asks a purely rhetorical question, wise respondents reply: "When did you stop beating your wife?" There is no right answer here; the trap being if you say you didn't, does it mean that you do beat your wife?
The county commissioners are playing the "Beat Your Wife" game with the delegation right now, and they're playing it on Channel 19 (the County Government TV channel), the Internet, and in the local newspapers.
The commissioners are asking: "Why don't you want ethics reform?"
Obviously, the members of the Frederick County Legislative Delegation, good people all, want ethical, trustworthy, and honest people in government. In fact, one could argue that state legislators are held to a tighter ethical standard than are county elected officials.
For the last several years, Commissioner John L. "Lennie" Thompson has proposed strict campaign finance and communication disclosure legislation. Unless you've been in a coma for the last 10 years, Lennie has been on a crusade, a jihad of sorts, against the influence of land developers, realtors, lawyers, and lobbyists.
He is often criticized for the things he says; my only gripe is with the way that he says them. I credit Lennie with being one of the most consistent politicians I have ever met. He says exactly the same thing today he said when I first met him, only then he was a Walkersville town commissioner.
His proposals focus on two aspects of ethics: prohibiting campaign contributions from applicants while they have a zoning change request before the county, and either preventing - or at least requiring - the disclosure of any conversation with those same applicants about their applications that take place outside of the public meeting room.
On the surface, I don't disagree with either proposal. The public has a right to know that an applicant, with significant financial gain at risk, cannot offer a contribution to a sitting commissioner and in exchange receive favorable consideration for an action.
Critics of development rally around Lennie. On the present board, all five members have expressed their desire to see Lennie's ethics and disclosure bill pass in its original form. During the last election, some claimed that Commissioner Charles Jenkins was "pro development;" but it also looks like he's "pro ethics," at least the version sought by the current board.
Commissioners President Jan Gardner is frequently quoted on the subject, and she, David Gray, Kai Hagen, and Lennie all ran on a sort of "truth and light" ticket, accusing former Commissioners Mike Cady and John Lovell of having been bought off by development interests on the New Market Region Plan.
For what it's worth, I don't really buy the claim, but it was an easy sell to a public frustrated with traffic, schools, and the other downsides of development.
In 2003, Lennie's ethics proposal was passed by the commissioners and sent to the delegation. Everyone treated the bill using the "Beat Your Wife" rule, tossing the bill along to the next guy like a hot potato.
When the proposal reached the delegation, everyone voted for it. I recall watching my colleagues react uncomfortably without a full appreciation of the scope of the prohibitions, only breathing a sigh of relief when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., ultimately vetoed the bill for policy reasons.
Governor Ehrlich cited a number of concerns, some valid, some not, in his veto message. Commissioners Thompson and Gardner complained about the "invisible forces" who lobbied behind the scenes to kill the bill. No one ever took credit or blame for the anti-advocacy at the time.
Recently, Sen. David Brinkley has indicated that he was at least aware of the pending veto, and that makes sense based on his close friendship with Governor Ehrlich's former policy director, Joe Getty, who actually crafted the veto message.
With that little political mystery settled, the commissioners dropped the exact same version of the bill on the current delegation. The only member that didn't vote in the affirmative on the last version is Del. Sue Hecht, who has since replaced former Del. Patrick Hogan.
As soon as the bill hit the delegation, Galen Clagett expressed some serious reservations. To explain the delay in discovering his objections, he told a reporter that he hadn't had a chance to give as much thought to the bill the last time, and that he didn't want to be the only member who "missed the train." I guess he means the Ethics Express!
Galen has assembled a series of amendments, some of which in practical effect remove the most stringent provisions; others apply the bill more fairly to those who want development projects approved and to those who oppose them.
Commissioners Gardner, Hagen, and Thompson claim the bill is worthless without the provisions targeted by Delegate Clagett, and some even resorted to some silly name-calling in a recent work session. One might get the impression that the commissioners believe the delegation is obligated to pass whatever they request.
The delegation has a solemn constitutional obligation to review any requests for legislation from the county, to debate it rigorously, and to make any changes the legislators deem appropriate.
If the commissioners want more power to enact laws of their design (sans interference), the answer is to convince voters to change the form of government, giving the county government the ability to avoid seeking legislative approval from Annapolis. Until then, the delegates and senators, who are duly elected by the same Frederick County voters who elect the commissioners, will do their duty, even when the commissioners disagree.
Depending on your perspective, that alone might be the strongest argument for or against changing the form of government.
In the end, I think the commissioners will be granted expanded communication disclosure, and a prohibition of contributions during pending land use actions. I don't think it will be exactly the bill they asked for (or more accurately demanded), but a bill is likely to pass.
If it isn't exactly what they want, you can probably count on more name-calling, angry pronouncements, and maybe even a press conference or two. I expect the final bill will be fair, and will include provisions that make these restrictions apply universally.
The delegation will meet in an informal work session at 5 P.M. Wednesday in Annapolis to hammer out a final bill. Commissioner Gardner, already planning to be in Annapolis, has indicated she will attend. Following the work session, the delegation will vote on Friday morning to either move the bill, amend the bill, or kill it.
Then we can all find some other issue to play rhetorical games over.