Questions rise over homebuilders' underwriting of official's trip Commissioners see no conflict of interest

October 18, 1992|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

The political action committee of the Carroll County homebuilders spent $500 to send a county official, who is responsible for inspecting construction work, to a convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September.

The Carroll County chapter of the Homebuilders' Association of Maryland paid more than half of the $852 cost of sending Ralph E. Green, chief of the county bureau of permits and inspections, to the national Building Officials and Code Administrators convention, Sept. 21-25.

The county commissioners accepted the donation because of the tight county budget. Questioned Friday, they said they don't feel the payment constituted a conflict of interest.

"I don't look at it as a bribe, just good communication," said Commissioner President Donald I. Dell. "[For it to be a bribe,] Ralph would have to cut them some favors, and he's not going to do that."

Mr. Green was the only Carroll representative at the convention.

Among other issues, he voted on proposed changes to the national building code, including one that would have required residential stairs to be 7 inches high and 11 inches wide.

That was defeated, leaving in place the current standard of 8 1/4 inches high and 9 inches wide.

At a meeting of the Homebuilders' Association on Thursday, Hampstead builder Martin K. P. Hill said he thought the group's $500 had been well spent.

"The changes would have made 90 percent of the homes in Carroll County unbuildable," he said.

The wider stairs would consume considerable space, raise the construction cost and, in some cases, require a major redesign of existing house plans.

"The vote [at the convention] was overwhelmingly to retain the current standards, so I think we'll see that our investment is being paid back," said Mr. Hill.

County Commissioners Elmer C. Lippy and Dell said they didn't realize that the association had contributed to the trip until Thursday's meeting. The two were guest speakers at the monthly meeting.

"I honestly don't recall discussing that," said Mr. Lippy. "I was not aware of who paid for what. But I can see where there should be some concern."

Robert A. "Max" Bair, county administrative assistant, said his draft copy of the minutes shows the trip was discussed at the Aug. 18 staff time of Michael Evans, director of the department of General Services.

Mr. Lippy and Commissioner Julia A. Gouge were at the meeting, while Mr. Dell was attending a planning commission meeting.

"I know it was talked about in a public session," Mr. Bair said.

However, the memo officially approving the trip and signed by Mr. Dell simply said that part of the expenses would be paid by "non-county funding sources."

"My notes say 'homebuilders,' but I wasn't sure if that was the Homebuilders' Association," Mr. Bair said. "I said 'private sources' in the event that I was inaccurate."

Mr. Green said the original offer came up while he was discussing proposed changes to the stair standards with Mr. Hill.

"There was no secret about how I was going to vote if I had the opportunity to go," he said.

"I felt that it was a little bit of overkill and that 8 1/4 -by-9 was sufficient due to limited use.

"Public buildings are the 7-by-11 and used by the public constantly during the day. Private staircases are used during the evening, but not that much during the day."

When Mr. Hill asked him how other counties handle sending people to the conventions, Mr. Green said he had heard that in some cases a homebuilders' association had contributed to the cost.

"I explained to him that Frederick County's association had made an offer to the commissioners of Frederick County to offer help for their code official to go and they had said 'no, they would send him themselves,' " he said.

Mr. Hill then asked how Carroll's commissioners would feel about his Homebuilders' Association helping to pay for Mr. Green to attend the convention. Mr. Green said he would have to check with the commissioners, who approved the joint venture.

The association approved the $500 donation.

"If there was a mistake made, it was not an intentional one," Mr. Green said. "It was made with full knowledge of everyone, including the commissioners."

However, Mr. Hill remembered the sequence of events differently. He said that Mr. Green called him about the contribution.

"We were approached by the county to help offset the cost," Mr. Hill said. "At that point, the local chapter agreed to donate the $500."

Nevertheless, the county commissioners have said they don't feel the contribution was a conflict.

The county ethics ordinance says, in part:

"County officials and employees who are subject to this ordinance shall not: . . . solicit any gift or accept gifts from any person that has or is negotiating a contract with the county or is regulated by their agency, except when these gifts would not present a conflict of interest as determined by the [ethics] commission."

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