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BOE hears feedback on ethics policy

February 22, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Maryland's State Ethics Commission has asked the Washington County Board of Education to amend a proposed new ethics policy, including limits on candidates and gift giving.

The school board has worked for months on stricter standards in areas such as conflicts of interest and financial disclosure.

On Tuesday, the board's Policy Committee reviewed the state's feedback on the latest proposal.

Committee members agreed to follow the state's suggestions, then send a draft back to the state for further review. The final draft is to be sent to the full school board for a vote.

The proposed policy bars board members and school district officials and employees from accepting gifts of more than $100 "on a cumulative basis" in a calendar year from anyone who has or is negotiating a contract with the school system or otherwise "under the authority" of the district, without the approval of a local ethics panel.

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The state commission noted the new policy raises the limit from $25, not cumulative. The commission wrote it has allowed a $100 gift limit in two counties, but is unlikely in the future to approve a limit of more than $50, the maximum imposed on state board members.

Policy Committee members and other officials discussed how the policy might apply to different situations.

Board Vice President Ruth Anne Callaham asked hypothetically about a board member exchanging Christmas gifts with a relative employed by the district.

Deputy Superintendent Boyd Michael wondered about school system employees raising money for an ill colleague.

However, the gift limit wouldn't apply in those cases because they don't involve people under contract, said Anthony Trotta, the school system's chief legal counsel.

Another proposed section would make the ethics policy apply to "persons appointed to or seeking a position on the elected Board of Education."

The state commission called the restriction "too broad."

"Seeking" isn't defined and only people elected to state office are subject to the Public Ethics Law, the commission wrote.

Another part of the proposal says school board members with immediate relatives in a school system union may participate in personnel decisions or collective bargaining if the members disclose their connections.

The commission wrote it wouldn't approve that idea and pointed the county to Frederick County's policy. Board members there may participate if an immediate family member is affected but the two people don't live together.

Board President Wayne D. Ridenour said the same-household standard would exclude him and W. Edward Forrest. He said it also could exclude two other board members -- Paul W. Bailey and William H. Staley -- if their relatives employed by the school system were to end up living with them. That would leave three board members.

But if the board were down to fewer than four eligible members, it could let the whole board participate and publicly explain the possible conflicts, Trotta said.

Forrest said the key is for board members to clearly disclose their connections.

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