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CECIL CHATTER: State Flunks “Integrity” Test; Smigiel Abstains on Pay Boost

March 19, 2012
By Nancy Schwerzler

Maryland Gets D Minus Grade on “Integrity” Report Card

Anyone with short, or long, memories of political scandals in Maryland knows that the state has a long and sordid history of corrupt elected officials. But a new study finds the state’s laws, regulations and access to public information contribute to a climate of ethical challenges that rates Maryland with a D- grade on public “integrity.”

The survey evaluated public information access, legislative and executive accountability, ethics enforcement, political campaign finance, lobbying disclosure and auditing, among other factors. The report was a joint project by the Center for Public Integrity—a respected, journalistic-oriented Washington, DC non-profit—Global Integrity, and Public Radio International.

Overall, Maryland’s D- or 61 percent grade ranked the state at 40 of the 50 states for public integrity—or 10th from the bottom of the scale. When we were in school, a D- was very much a flunking grade. And on individual components of the overall score, Maryland ranked even lower.

The survey gave Maryland an “F” grade, ranking 46th out of all the states, for its access to public information. Each state agency handles its own requests for access to public information, with differing interpretations of the law, and many exemptions from the law effectively shield government agencies and documents from public scrutiny. Online access to state documents is also limited, the report found.

From Cecil Times’ reporting adventures, we’ve found the state court docket database is updated in almost real time and property records are open and available online. But records of disciplinary and regulatory agencies are not online and require written requests for information that are often delayed, denied or exempted from public review. Some state agencies are very forthcoming with information requested by the press, but we’re not sure individual citizens would get the same access even though they should, by law.

And, as we’ve reported on Cecil Times in the past, the state Open Meetings law is frequently violated with no more than a slap on the wrist, if that. Cecil County government got a wristslap from the state last year while the Upper Shore Regional Council routinely ignored the law for several years.

Statewide, also hidden behind a secrecy veil are records of state legislators, whose mandatory financial and asset disclosures must be accessed by visiting the state Ethics Commission to view copies, and the legislator is notified about who is asking to see their reports —a point that the new survey particularly took to task.

See the Maryland report card here: http://www.stateintegrity.org/maryland and a detailed anaysis of the state’s record here: http://www.stateintegrity.org/maryland_story_subpage

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Smigiel Abstains on Judicial Pay Raise Vote

It was the right thing to do, but Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) often does the politically expedient or bombastic thing. So it was a welcome surprise to check the state General Assembly record and see that Smigiel abstained—or was granted an “excused absence”– last week when the House of Delegates voted on giving the state’s judges a pay raise.

Smigiel is a candidate for a Cecil County Circuit Court judge seat in the April 3 primaries, appearing on both the Republican and Democratic ballots in what is considered a non-partisan election.

There are two seats at stake in the elections: the seats currently held by Judges Keith Baynes and Jane Cairns Murray, who were both appointed to their seats by Governor Martin O’Malley to fill vacancies. They must stand for election to retain the seats, after they won appointments by going through a lengthy vetting process by local and state bar associations and a special judicial nomination commission.

Smigiel chose not to go through that review and vetting process by legal peers. Instead, he simply filed as a political candidate in the election.

The top two vote-getters in each party primary will appear on the November ballot. If the same two candidates win in each primary, they will be unopposed on the general election ballot. But, for example, if Murray, a Democrat, and Baynes, a Republican, win the Democratic primary but Baynes and Smigiel win the GOP primary, all three will fight it out for the two seats in November.

The issue in Annapolis last week was whether to allow an independent Judicial Compensation panel’s recommendations for annual pay boosts of about $29,000, phased in over three years, to take effect automatically. To stop that, legislators had to adopt their own legislation setting another pay scale or insisting on no raise at all.

The General Assembly settled on pay boosts of about $14,000 over the next three years, so Circuit Court judges will get a boost to $154,433.

The Senate approved the plan, 33-9, while the House OK’ed it 84-47—without Smigiel’s vote.

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