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Ethics board seeks to expand financial disclosure mandate

PRINCESS ANNE – Members of the Somerset County Ethics Commission unanimously recommended that not only they complete a financial disclosure form but it be extended as a requirement to serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals.

That recommendation, along with others, were approved during the ethics board’s meeting last Wednesday and forwarded to the County Commissioners for their consideration.

“This one may raise some eyebrows,” said Piet deWitt, chairman of the five member ethics panel. He said the planning commission in particular “ has a big job” entertaining proposals to determine what’s right and wrong for the county, “and the people need to know who sits there.”

During the drafting of a wind energy ordinance members of Safe for Somerset formally complained about planning commission members who had family that held leases with Pioneer Green, the wind developer that has since abandoned its plans in the county. Now this advisory board is discussing amendments to poultry house regulations, and at least one member, Glenn Ains, lives on a chicken farm.

During a work session May 21 Mr. deWitt met with the planning commission and advised members to be aware of conflicts of interest, and if unsure of their standing, to ask the Ethics Commission for guidance. “It’s possible that somebody could decide that if you raise chickens you shouldn’t be sitting on the Planning and Zoning Board discussing chicken houses,” Mr. deWitt said, but he was not going to give his singular off-the- cuff opinion during that forum.

“I do believe there is some concern about the boards,” Mr. deWitt said, adding, “if there isn’t, there should be, and the public has the right to know who is holding up their interests.” The financial disclosure form recommendation is ultimately decided by the County Commissioners, “ which may refuse (it),” he said.

The County Commissioners and others have said previously it’s very difficult to find residents willing to serve on boards and commissions and requiring a financial disclosure form could further limit the pool. Mr. deWitt said he is “ well aware” of that concern, but “We’re not talking about every commission, or every board,” and numerically, “it’s not a huge number of people.” In addition to the seven planning board members, there are five regular and one alternate member on the BZA.

Safe for Somerset member Tammy Truitt told Ethics Commission members that she is concerned about the directors on the Somerset County Economic Development Commission, and their disclosure requirements. She said projects it reviews could benefit family members. Likewise Kathryn Washburn inquired if the EDC’s executive director is subject to a financial disclosure statement.

While it was not immediately known what the requirements were for this quasi-governmental body, ethics board attorney Kirk Simpkins said if the Ethics Commission wants to include the EDC it should adopt that recommendation for the County Commissioners to consider.

A work session with the County Commissioners is set for July 7. Other issues to be discussed include recommendations that employees and county leaders file a disclosure form upon receipt of a gift associated with his or her official capacity, that “qualified relative” in the financial disclosure form be clarified to be the same as “immediate family” as defined in the county ordinance, and add a question on the financial disclosure form about any property in Somerset County where a qualified relative resides or owns.

On that last point Mr. deWitt said those who are required to complete the financial disclosure form “must be proactive” to accurately fill it out. “The ‘I don’t know’ answer can’t be an acceptable answer,” he said. “ You have to make some effort” to find out. During the wind turbine debate planning commission member Kevin Anderson was not certain if his sister’s husband had a land lease with Pioneer Green, which Safe for Somerset pointed out in its complaint.

“What we got was basically ‘I don’t communicate with my relatives’,” Mr. deWitt said when the complaint was investigated. “Well, sorry, but in this case you’re in a position where you accepted this responsibility, and with it comes a responsibility to find it out.”