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August 11, 2011

Kai Hagan Violating Ethics Law?

Blaine R. Young

Many may have noticed that on two occasions in the span of just one week the Board of County Commissioners discussed a new Ethics Ordinance which has been drafted by staff attorneys in response to recent changes in state law.


The new ordinance covers two general areas of regulation. The first is the rules that elected and non-elected public officials must follow, such as financial disclosures, limits on gifts and conflicts of interest. The second aspect of the regulation is the lobbying ordinance, which sets forth the rules that apply to people who speak with county officials in an attempt to influence their actions, and are paid to do so.


There was little debate about the first part of the ordinance dealing with the rules the commissioners and other county officials must follow. These rules primarily are dictated by the State of Maryland, and the ordinance was drafted to comply with new requirements in the state code. Whether we like it or not isn’t the issue, and complaining about it is a waste of time. It is what it is.


On the new lobbying regulations, we had a choice between two alternative versions of the ordinance. The first, which was known as Option A was designed by the state for larger, more urban counties. The second, known as Option B, was designed for smaller more rural counties.


Now, we all know that Frederick County doesn’t fit neatly into either one of those designations. We are rural, suburban and urban all wrapped into one, and it was not a given whether we should choose Option A or Option B.


The majority of the current commissioners ran on a platform of less government regulation and less government interference in our businesses and in our lives. So, the majority naturally are inclined toward Option B, which was a lesser regulatory scheme.


However, before I committed to Option B, I asked whether anyone had thus far seen any problems in the current reporting requirements required of lobbyists, which would give them cause to believe that the regulations should be tightened. No one had any such information, and after a brief debate the commissioners adopted Option B. I, along with my colleagues, thought the matter was closed.


However, the very next week I saw reason to reopen the discussion. I learned soon after our work session on the lobbying ordinance that apparently the ordinance as now written is not doing the job it was designed to do.


Many will remember that when the ordinance was passed by a prior Board of County Commissioners, Commissioner John L. “Lennie” Thompson repeatedly referred to those who lobby the commissioners as “pond scum,” and shouted into the cameras that the public had a right to know “where the money is coming from.” Supposedly, the lobbying ordinance he wrote – and got a majority of that Board of County Commissioners to pass – required people who are paid to lobby the commissioners to register as lobbyists and report who is paying them to do the lobbying.


Many attorneys, engineers, surveyors and consultants throughout the county have dutifully filed their reports over the years, and have listed their clients and customers who have paid them to represent their interests before the commissioners and the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission. However, I learned last week that one person has not registered as a lobbyist and has not disclosed “where the money is coming from.”


Former County Commissioner Kai Hagen has stated on his website – and to anyone who will listen – that he founded this new organization called “Envision Frederick County” for the purpose of keeping an eye on land use and other matters. He has been soliciting donations to this organization from his cronies and from the public. He has also publicly stated that he is being paid $50,000 a year to run this new organization that he created. And he has appeared before both the Board of County Commissioners and the Planning Commission numerous times this year in what is an obvious effort to influence votes. If that is not lobbying, I do not know what is.


However, in spite of being paid for activities that would seem to meet anyone’s definition of lobbying, Mr. Hagen has not registered as a lobbyist.  He did not meet the July deadline for registering; and, for the life of me, I cannot understand why he is not required to register.


Furthermore, he needs to be required to disclose who is paying his salary and, thus, who is paying him to lobby county officials. Under the county’s Ethics Ordinance, lawyers, engineers and development consultants are required to register and name their clients for whom they lobby.


I believe every time Mr. Hagen has spoken to the commissioners publicly he has introduced himself as “Kai Hagen on behalf of Envision Frederick County.”


The rules should not be any different for someone like Mr. Hagen, whose mission is to thwart people from using their properties, than it is for those who try to help people use their properties. Mr. Hagen is being paid by people to speak to the commissioners and the Planning Commission. He has an obligation to comply with the plain language and the spirit of the lobbying ordinance and identify the people who are paying his salary.


So, as I stated at the last board meeting, if Kai Hagen is not required to register under the current laws, the laws need to be tightened, not loosened. And I would call on Mr. Hagen and everyone else who “lobbies” the county to do the same – tell us “where the money is coming from.”


After all, the public has a right to know.


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