Columbia Council to vote on ethics panel Merke resignation prompts debate

February 12, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

In reaction to the resignation last fall of one of its members, the Columbia Council debated last night whether to create a committee to re-evaluate the recently established policy on conflicts of interest.

The council decided to vote on whether to form an ethics panel -- either a subcommittee of the council or an appointed group of volunteers -- at its March 11 meeting.

The council is revisiting the sticky matter of deciding when a member should be prohibited from voting on an issue being considered by the council because of the confusion created when village of Town Center representative Joseph P. Merke resigned unexpectedly in October.

On Oct. 8., Mr. Merke voted on the issue of whether he should be barred from a future vote on the proposed $5.5 million Fairway Hills Golf Course, which would abut his home. Later, a Columbia Association legal opinion said that Mr. Merke shouldn't have participated in the vote concerning whether he had a conflict of interest.

L Mr. Merke resigned, saying his integrity had been "tainted."

The Town Center Village Board wrote to the council expressing displeasure about Mr. Merke's resignation, suggesting that the council's conflict-of-interest policy is unclear. The board questioned whether Mr. Merke in fact had a "legal or economic interest" in the issue at hand.

"We hope that, from the unfortunate experience in Joe's case, there will come a clearer understanding of what constitutes a real conflict of interest so that in the future, village boards need not be disenfranchised, as our board has been, on the basis of murky and misplaced conflict claims," wrote the Town Center Village Board.

Mr. Merke's replacement, Suzanne S. Waller, said the policy needs "fine-tuning."

Council member Norma L. Rose of Wilde Lake recommended forming a "blue-ribbon committee" to work on the issue. But several other council members said the policy already has been hashed out in detail, and that further efforts would be unlikely to provide clarification.

"The best attorneys in the world still will have fuzzy words to define conflict of interest," said council member Charles Acquard of Kings Contrivance. "By its very nature, it's difficult to define."

In other action, the council:

* Approved a charter establishing a Sister City Advisory Committee. The committee's goals are to advise the council and Columbia Association (CA) staff and encourage outside financing for the international student exchange program involving cities in France and Spain.

* Heard testimony from Wilde Lake resident Ginger Scott on a proposal to include in CA's budget money to hire independent experts to offer opinions on issues involving financial and environmental decisions.

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