A package of ethics bills proposed by Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening in July to restore "faith and trust" in the integrity of county real estate transactions has quietly died in the County Council.
"I just haven't felt an urgency to address it," said council Chairman Jo Ann T. Bell. "I'm not sure they're the bills that should be put forth. I'm not sure I completely understand why or if they are necessary. They may not ever be necessary."
Glendening made the proposals in response to a grand jury report in March that criticized the council and Glendening's office for their handling of land purchases and swaps. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore has begun a review of the transactions. The Prince George's State's Attorney's Office also has begun a review of several county land transactions.
The council held one work session on the ethics bills and, despite lobbying by Glendening, voted last week to hold them in committee, a move that effectively ends any chance of passage this year.
"It's clear to me they're letting this die," Glendening said this week. "I'm very, very disappointed. It's been in process for a long time. Clearly there's a problem out there in the way the public perceives the operations and the integrity of the government."
Glendening's four-point proposals would have:
Curbed the County Council's use of "emergency legislation" to authorize capital improvement projects, a procedure frequently used at the executive's request to speed land transactions.
Required the county executive's office to get approval from the council before granting tax breaks to developers.
Called for public hearings before the county Board of Ethics for any land transaction involving the county and elected officials or their relatives.
Required public hearings before the county disposes of surplus property or agrees to swap or sell any county land.
The refusal to act on the package was a rare assertion of independence by the council, which has often appeared to be dominated by Glendening. In meeting with council members, Glendening said, some viewed the proposals as an executive intrusion. Glendening said he has administratively implemented the proposals directly affecting his office. "We are treating any land transaction as if this legislation were in effect," he said.
"We've all taken some criticism on this. The issue of public confidence in the process of government is at stake. These are some proposals to help restore the public confidence. It's extremely important not to dally around."
But Bell, whom Glendening tried unsuccessfully to replace on the County Council this year, said the executive had no sense of urgency until a spate of news stories on the grand jury findings and other county land transactions. "Parris got his toes stepped on and all of a sudden, it's, 'Do this,' " said Bell.
Glendening said he would urge the council to take up the package again after the election. Bell said the matter needs to be studied further before anything is done.
Council member Richard J. Castaldi said that despite the council's action to hold the package, "I believe there needs to be some legislation. There may need to be other adjustments. We want to make sure there is public input to this whole process."
Council Vice Chairman Frank P. Casula said he thought the bills were going to be held in committee for two weeks, but "she's the chairperson," he said of Bell. "I don't have any problem with any ethics bill. We don't need one, really. I don't need one, but if that's what it takes, so be it, let's do it."
Only council member Sue V. Mills dissented on the council vote to hold the bills. "There is a great deal of suspicion out there," she said. "Refusing to act on the bills lends credence to the suspicion."
Mills said her only objection to the bills was that "they were not strong enough, they were somewhat redundant to what's on the books. But they were a start. I just don't understand the collective fear of that legislation on the County Council. It's beyond my imagination."