Smithsburg councilman to propose ethics ordinance

August 19, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

SMITHSBURG -- In the midst of a controversy over whether the Smithsburg mayor's vote to return her husband to the town's zoning appeals board was a conflict of interest, some Smithsburg Town Council members have decided the time has come for the town to put some ethical guidelines on the books.

Smithsburg Councilman Donnie Souders Jr. said he plans to propose at next month's work session that the town prepare and adopt a town ethics ordinance, which he would like to have in place by the end of the year.

The ordinance could be modeled after those used by the state, Washington County and other small towns such as Boonsboro, Souders said. Those ordinances address issues such as conflicts of interest, financial disclosures, lobbying disclosures and procedures for responding to ethics complaints.

"I think we're looking for some provisions that allow our residents to serve, but also give us some protection from things that could arise," Souders said.


The issue came up this month after Smithsburg Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers cast a tiebreaking vote to reappoint her husband to the town's zoning appeals board, a post some council members argue could pose a conflict of interest. Without an ethics ordinance or appeals board, council members and residents lack a neutral authority to evaluate the ethical questions involved, Souders said.

The Maryland Public Ethics Law requires that all municipalities enact provisions to govern the ethics of public officials, but allows the State Ethics Commission to exempt municipalities from the requirement if it "would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy, would significantly reduce the availability of qualified individuals for public service, and is not necessary to preserve the purposes of this title."

This is determined in part by the size of the town and its government, said Robert Hahn, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

"It may be hard to locate people willing to serve if they had to do financial disclosure and other things," Hahn explained.

In 1982, shortly after the requirement was added for towns to enact ethics provisions, Paul Boswell, then mayor of Smithsburg, wrote to the State Ethics Commission requesting an exemption, Hahn said. At the time, Smithsburg's population was about 856, and the exemption was granted, Hahn said.

After the 1990 census, when the population of Smithsburg had grown to about 1,200, the commission reviewed the town's status and determined it remained small enough to stay exempt, Hahn said. However, he said he did not know if the town's exemption had been re-examined since then.

The U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 population estimate for Smithsburg was 2,902, according to

Souders said he thought Smithsburg had changed enough since 1982 that it was time to rethink the need for an ethics ordinance, regardless of whether one is required by the state. Boonsboro, which had an estimated population of 3,379 in 2007, enacted an ethics ordinance in 2004, Souders said.

Kirk Downey, assistant attorney for Washington County, said that Hagerstown, Hancock and Williamsport also have ethics ordinances, but partner with the county to have the county's ethics commission administer them.

Souders said this sort of partnership with the county would be ideal for Smithsburg, where it might be difficult to find neutral ethics commission members within the town.

"I believe we need to have an ethics ordinance and when we get one adopted, I think it needs to go to an outside, independent panel or commission," Souders said.

Souders said he has spoken to some of the other council members and believes that a majority of the council supports the adoption of an ethics ordinance. He said he has gotten six to 12 phone calls about the lack of recourse for ethical complaints in Smithsburg.

"A lot of people want to see this change," Souders said.

Smithsburg Councilman Dennis "Jack" Wenthe said he supports the introduction of an ethics ordinance at the earliest opportunity.

"I think we need to make that a top priority," Wenthe said. "With some of the actions that went on in town this last month, it really shows that the town really needs one."

Council members Tom Chiarizia and Shirley Aurand did not return calls seeking comment.

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