On Senator Hough’s ethics bill as underhanded and unethical campaign tactics

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following was submitted as a Letter to the Editor of the Frederick News Post, but was not printed.

Before running for County Executive in 2014, Jan Gardner had a long and consistent history of advocating for stronger and tighter ethics and lobbying rules and laws. Open and transparent government and the restoration of trust in county government were cornerstones of her most recent campaign. Trust had been eroded by actions of the last Board of County Commissioners. Since taking office, County Executive Gardner has delivered on her promise.

After taking office, Gardner formed a bi-partisan Ethics Task Force to examine the county’s ethics ordinance and provide recommendations to improve and strengthen it.

Throughout their open and deliberative process, the public was invited to participate and weigh in. From the recommendations of the Ethics Task Force, the administration crafted changes that were approved by the new County Council, making the county’s ethics ordinance the strongest in the state.

Recently, the county proposed legislation to the state legislature to make ethics regulations in Frederick County, even stronger. The proposal came out of a lengthy and thorough public process, with input from the Ethics Task Force and the non-partisan League of Women Voters, and received support from the County Council and County Executive.

After additional public meetings and hearings, the proposal was advanced to the members of our delegation to Annapolis. Then, just as the delegation members were to discuss and vote on submitting the proposal as a delegation-supported bill, and well into the legislative session, State Senator Michael Hough presented an alternative proposal.

Hough’s proposal was written in private, with zero public process or input, with no involvement from the Ethics Task Force or the League of Women Voters, and advanced without the support of the County Council or County Executive. This last second bill was also so broad and complicated and unvetted — it was found to have constitutional issues by the office of the Attorney General — that it is highly unlikely to pass, even with a slew of last second changes that have been made to fix the most easily identified problems.

While there are some elements that may have merit in his proposal, if Senator Hough intended to write a bill that wasn’t going to pass, he did an excellent job with this rushed, overly broad and notably flawed proposal.

Along with other things Hough has said and done recently, most especially his numerous attacks — already — on County Executive Gardner as being opposed to “real ethics reform,” one can’t help but wonder about his real motivations and intentions here.

Strengthening ethics and lobbying regulations has been a core principle of County Executive Gardner’s history as a commissioner, and in her current administration from the start. How ethical is it for Senator Hough and Delegate Afzali to ignore her history, and attack Gardner as being opposed to ethics reform, ONLY because she has criticized the process that produced Hough’s proposal, identified a number of flaws and concerns, and suggested the delegation support and advance the original bill?

And then take Hough’s proposal through a responsible and thorough public process that could lead to a better and vetted, broadly supported bill to introduce next year! A bill that could actually pass.

It appears that Hough and Afzali are more interested in setting up a deceitful political attack, and undermining the County Executive, than working for true ethics reform.

If Hough is genuinely interested in comprehensive ethics reform, he should pull his bill, and submit it to a proper public process. And if he respects the county’s process and the citizens that have worked on the county’s bill, he should throw his support behind the county’s bill.

That would be the ethical thing to do!

MD State Senator Michael Hough represents Maryland District 4 in Annapolis. Both Mark Long and Kai Hagen live in his district.