By Daniel Menefee
A bill to require state lawmakers and their cabinet level appointees to post financial disclosures statements online cleared the Senate for final passage Thursday, after spirited debate on Wednesday on amendments to apply the same requirement to county, municipal and school board officials.
“The focus of this is us, and I think we should keep it that way,” said Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, on Wednesday in opposition to an amendment from Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, to extend the disclosure requirements to county and municipal officials and school board members running on slates with candidates for state office.
“This is for a member of the General Assembly, a state official elect, cabinet level officials, and the heads of agencies of the executive branch,” Dyson said.
Currently, financial disclosure forms are only available by going in person to an Annapolis office.
Zirkin wanted county officials to file online
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, offered an amendment that trumped Kelley’s and would require local officials to post their financial disclosures online — even when not running on a slate with candidates seeking state office.
“I think they should have to file online as well,” Zirkin said. “I think people should have a right to see their financial forms as well as ours. This would shine the light of day on all elected officials.”
(CORRECTION: Sen. Joe Getty, R-Carroll, was misidentified)
Sen. Joe Getty, R-Carroll, opposed Zirkin’s amendment because it would have a “chilling effect” on office seekers in a small town “where everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
“We want the best members of a town to serve on the town council,” Getty said. “You might want the chief of the fire company or the leading business man in the town to serve on the town council.”
Zirkin said local officials have great power to enter into contracts with taxpayer money and any possible conflicts should be available online.
Local officials already file disclosures locally
Dyson also opposed Zirkin’s amendment and said local officials in the counties and on school boards are already required to file financial disclosures in their jurisdictions. “That information is available to folks in those counties,” Dyson said. He said requiring online disclosure at the local level would be costly for localities that do not yet have the resources to post disclosures online.
Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, supported Zirkin and Kelly’s amendments and said “anyone who runs for office and serves the public should have no problem having their information online. I do believe we can be more transparent. I was a local official and constituents need the ability to check in and see the possible conflicts. ”
The state estimates it would cost $70,000 in general funds for fiscal 2013 to reprogram State Ethics Commission’s existing electronic filing system.
All the officials covered in the bill already must file disclosure statements; the issue is putting their disclosures online for greater public access.
Zirkin withdrew his amendment at Thursday’s session and offered a substitute amendment that would require only county-level officials to post financial disclosures online — exempting municipal officials and school boards members.
The amendment passed 32-13 and the bill is expected to pass in the next few days.
More disclosure for municipalities
Although the proposal would not require municipal officials and school board members to file disclosure on line, an April 30 deadline is fast approaching for a conflict-of-interest law passed in 2010 that applies to local elected officials and school board members.
The new law requires county and municipal governments to amend their ethics ordinances to meet or exceed disclosure laws that have been in effect for state officials for 30 years.
Maryland Municipal League Research Director James P. Peck said there is wide perception that the law goes too far in what it asks of elected officials in small towns to reveal about their personal lives.
They will have to reveal personal financial information about themselves that average citizens would not normally share with a neighbor, he said.
The State Ethics Commission has exempted about half of Maryland’s 157 municipalities from disclosure laws based on their size and services they provide, and that won’t change under the law going into effect on April 30. The exemptions are reviewed after each census every 10 years.