As the Baltimore County Council prepares to take up an ethics reform package proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, some members say they're wary of a measure that would make it easy for anyone to access their financial disclosure forms.
Kamenetz wants to post elected officials' forms online starting in May, a key part of the legislation. Open-government advocates say such disclosure lets citizens easily examine potential conflicts of interest.
Now, anyone who wants to see a Baltimore County official's form must go to Towson to pick up a copy of the document. Those who request the information also must provide their names and addresses, and the official is then notified that someone sought their financial disclosure information.
Some council members said they like knowing who has sought the information, but added that they're still examining the issues involved in online disclosure.
"I like the way it's set up now," said Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. "You have a right to know who's looking at your information."
On the forms, officials list information including their home address, real estate property, sources of income, whether any relatives work for the county and gifts they've taken from people doing business with the county.
Councilman Todd Huff said he is "not a big fan" of posting the forms online because he was once the victim of identity theft.
"That's happened to me before, so I don't particularly like the fact that pertinent information that [identity thieves] need is online," the Lutherville Republican said.
Still, Olszewski noted that anyone can pick up the documents and post them online themselves.
"It's going to get out there anyway," he said.
Council members were originally set to introduce the ethics package last week but said they needed more time to review the details. Since then, the online disclosure issue has emerged as an area of concern, members said. Kamenetz's bill also addresses lobbying, gifts from people who have done business with the county and conflicts of interest.
"We're just trying to do due diligence," said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat. "We have to get it right the first time."
Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said he also prefers the current setup.
"That way, you know who's looking at your financial disclosures," Quirk said, adding that he's open to discussion with other council members about the issue. "I think there's a way to do public disclosure but not to have to blast out information to the whole universe."
The county's current system "puts the burden on the average citizen," said Susan Wichmann, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland.
Common Cause has previously published all state lawmakers' forms online.
"It made them very angry, from what I understand," Wichmann said. "But it's public information. … Anyone is free to go in there and photocopy [the forms] and put those photocopies online."
She pointed out that people can access a range of information about anyone online, such as their home's value.
Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, said the county executive "has really strong feelings" about including online disclosure in the ethics bill.
"It's public information," Mohler said, adding that it is easy for people to look up an elected official's home address through other public documents. "The reality is, it's available now. People just have to come in and see it."
But Kamenetz has not proposed posting the financial disclosure forms of non-elected officials, such as commission members, saying that would discourage people from serving.
They "are volunteers, and we have trouble enough getting to people to serve on a board or commission," Mohler said.
Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said he doesn't have any problems with the proposal.
"Anyone can go to Towson and get those forms and put them online themselves," Marks said, but added that he thinks home addresses should be redacted.