A short-handed County Council agreed Monday to keep politicians off the county Ethics Commission.
The commission labored in relative obscurity until May, when County Executive Charles I. Ecker nominated Allan Kittleman to fill a vacancy on the committee.
Since then, council members have asked the commission to share opinions on several issues, including whether Kittleman is eligible to serve on the commission. Kittleman, 30, is the son of popular House of Delegates Minority Whip Robert Kittleman, R-14B, and a member of the Republican Central Committee.
With the exception of planning board nominees, the council routinely accepts the executive's nominees to boards and commissions. The commission said Kittleman was eligible to serve since the only requirement for membership on the commission was county residency.
Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, then asked that Kittleman's nomination be put on hold while she introduced a bill to strengthen the requirements, which she called a huge loophole. The council later vetoed his nomination in a 3-2 vote that followed party lines.
The bill enacted Monday was embraced by councilDemocrats but opposed by council Republicans as politically motivated. It excludes lobbyists, employees of political parties, candidates,elected officials and party central committee members from service on the commission.
Darrel Drown, R-2nd, who was out of town Monday,had planned to vote against the bill in protest. Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, said earlier that while he agreed with the bill in principle, he felt the timing was wrong. Feaga voted with the Democrats to enact the bill without debate.
There was plenty of debate, however, on council Chairman C. Vernon Gray's proposal to raise the lid on property assessments to 10 percent. Ecker had proposed keeping the assessment cap at 5 percent.
Feaga and Pendergrass supported the Ecker proposal. Gray, D-3rd, and Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, backed the 10 percentceiling. Until the council convenes at an Oct. 21 legislative session, the issue is in limbo.
State law requires counties to set an assessment ceiling by Dec. 31 but imposes no penalty for not doing so.
Ecker plans to reintroduce the 5 percent ceiling at the Oct. 21 session. He said he hopes the council will vote on the measure by Nov. 1 so the state can use the county's formula when determining new assessments.
Gray argued that a 10 percent increase is necessary because of a projected $10 million to $12 million shortfall in this year'salready austere budget. By Gray's estimates, the use of a 10 percentrather than a 5 percent ceiling will increase county revenue by $1.2million.
Feaga agreed with Ecker that any increase in the assessment cap is a hidden increase in taxes. The property tax already places an unfair burden on property owners, Feaga said. The 14-cent property tax increase the council voted in May "is the last tax increase I will support," Feaga said.
Pendergrass, saying she had been agonizing about Gray's proposal, voted with Feaga to keep the cap at 5 percent because "people are really suffering right now." She also said she believes the 5 percent cap is in keeping with the rate of inflation.
Farragut, who voted with Pendergrass and the Republicans in January to impose a 5 percent cap, sided with Gray, saying, "What I'm concerned about most are the inequities -- those with the greatest ability to pay being subsidized by those with the least ability to pay."
Gray had earlier argued that the 5 percent assessment ceiling benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.
The other issue coming before the council at its special legislative session Oct. 21 is a bondrefinancing plan. If approved, as is expected, the plan would save the county about $1 million.