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School board asks counsel to clarify new ethics regulations

Under proposed rules, PTAs might have to register as lobbyists

November 02, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

Concerned that parent groups such as PTAs would need to file as lobbyists under proposed new ethics regulations, the Washington County Board of Education Tuesday asked its legal counsel to clarify the issue with the state attorney general.

Board member Justin Hartings said it would be "crazy" for a PTA to have to register as a lobbyist.

"If the PTA wants the principal to put a welcome mat in front of the school, right, that's advocating for a school official to take an act. It gets silly, and I don't want it to be silly. I want it to be, I want it to serve the purpose it's intended to serve, which I think is a good one," Hartings said.

The school board took numerous votes Tuesday on first readings to rescind some current ethics documents and move forward with several new or updated documents, according to an online broadcast of Tuesday's board meeting held at the central office in Hagerstown.

The seven-member board will need to vote again on the documents before they would take effect.

The changes to the ethics policy and regulations stem from a 2010 state law charging the Maryland State Ethics Commission with the responsibility of updating ethics policies for school boards and local governments, said Anthony Trotta, the school board's chief legal counsel.

The state commission must approve the school board's proposed ethics policy and will review the documents the school board voted on Tuesday before the board votes on them again, Trotta said.

Much of the discussion centered around the definition of "lobbying" in the board's proposed ethics regulations. Anyone who lobbies the board would have to register as a lobbyist and complete an activity report, under the proposal.

The definition of lobbying would include anyone who spends more than $100 for food, entertainment or other gifts in connection with communicating or intending to influence school system officials, such as board members or the superintendent, according to presentation documents and Trotta.

Hartings asked Trotta if parents concerned about an issue loosely formed a group, pooled some money for a mailing about their stance, spent $100 and showed up to ask the board to vote a certain way would be considered a lobbyist.

Trotta said the parental group would have to register as a lobbyist, under the proposal.

Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox asked if a PTA sent out a mailing opposing a rezoning decision and spent more than $100 to rally support, who would register as a lobbyist — the PTA president or every member who showed up to lobby the board?

Under that scenario, Trotta said the PTA would have to register as a corporate entity.

Hartings said he probably met many school system officials when he was part of a group of people who didn't like a decision the board might make.

"And the thought that I got together with some friends, probably used $100 worth of paper in making copies and mailing all of you folks, if that makes me a lobbyist, then I think there's something seriously wrong with what we're asking to do," Hartings said.

"I really struggle with where the line is between allowing the community, members of the community to get together with other people that are like-minded and assemble, you know, and petition for redress," Hartings said.

Wilcox said the reason PTAs aren't listed as an exemption under the lobbying rule might be because "nobody thought it would be taken to the bizarre extreme."

Board President Wayne Ridenour said there's a significant difference between people or groups lobbying and being lobbyists. One can lobby without being a lobbyist, he said.

The $100 threshold will cause problems because of postage required for mailings, Ridenour said.

Trotta said there is no monetary or civil penalty if someone doesn't file as a lobbyist, but the board might publicly express its disappointment that a group hasn't registered.

Trotta said he will talk to the state Attorney General's Office about changing language in the proposed regulation so the activities of PTAs and citizen groups are not considered lobbying.

The new policy is based on a model the state ethics commission provided this year, including sections from the school board's current ethics regulations and incorporating changes recommended by the school board's policy committee.

The proposed updates can be found under Board Documents for the Nov. 1 meeting at the school system's website at www.wcps.k12.md.us/index.html.

Trotta said the website also will include a request for citizens to provide comments on the proposed ethics documents.

If the state commission doesn't provide comments on the documents within 60 days of submission, then they will be deemed approved, Trotta said. At that time, the board can vote whether to adopt the new documents and rescind the current ethics documents, he said.

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