Ethics chief will review zoning vote Questions raised on council member's ties with developers

Feaga family farm involved

Case will be discussed at Feb. 20 meeting of full commission

February 06, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The chairman of the Howard County Ethics Commission said yesterday that he will review council member Charles C. Feaga's vote last month on a zoning amendment in Fulton -- a vote that helped two developers who had just bought an option to buy Mr. Feaga's family farm in Ellicott City.

The commission's chairman, Russell Gledhill, said he will bring the case up for discussion at the five-member panel's meeting on Feb. 20. He said no investigation is under way but that he has asked the Office of Law to review the county's conflict-of-interest laws.

Also yesterday, a Howard County state senator who successfully sponsored an ethics bill for county zoning cases last year said Mr. Feaga erred in not disclosing his sale of the option to buy his farm before the vote on the zoning matter involving the same developers.

"We're a growing county," said Sen. Martin G. Madden, who like Mr. Feaga is a Republican. "There is an increasing demand for full and public disclosure."

Mr. Feaga -- a 10-year council member from western Howard who may seek the Republican candidacy for county executive in 1998 -- said yesterday that he stood by his decision not to disclose his business relationship with Columbia developers John F. Liparini and Hugh F. Cole Jr.

Mr. Feaga also stood by his decision not recuse himself from the zoning vote, which passed 3-2.

"I'd do the exact same thing," said Mr. Feaga, who reaffirmed that he has granted no special treatment to the developers. "It's called voting the way you feel is correct."

In December, Mr. Liparini and Mr. Cole signed an option to buy a 200-acre Ellicott City farm owned by Mr. Feaga and his four siblings. They hope to build up to 100 high-priced homes there.

Less than a month later, on Jan. 2, Mr. Feaga voted for a zoning amendment that will permit construction of an assisted-care facility at U.S. 29 and Johns Hopkins Road in Fulton, a tract half-owned by the same two developers.

Mr. Feaga said he has "no problems" with the ethics commission's discussing the matter.

He said voters elected him, in part, to cast pro-development zoning votes. If he didn't vote in such cases, he said, he would not be representing his supporters.

"It's the chicken way out," Mr. Feaga said. "It's the easy way out."

Local ethics experts have said it is a classic conflict-of-interest case.

"The question is, 'Was he elected to make zoning decisions

for someone who with whom he has a pending lucrative business arrangement?' " said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a watchdog group.

Ms. Povich also said Howard's ethics commission should investigate the matter fully and at least identify when council members should abstain from voting.

"They [the ethics commissioners] shouldn't be silent on this," she said. "If they are entirely silent on the matter, it will only foster distrust of the government."

The ethics panel, composed of the county executive's appointees, interprets county ethics laws. In general, the laws speak to "direct" financial gain in conflict-of-interest cases, which does not seem to apply in the Feaga case, Mr. Gledhill said.

"My reading of it, probably not," he said.

Mr. Feaga's four council colleagues -- who say they did not know about his business dealings with the developers at the time of the zoning vote -- are not upset about his failure to disclose it and abstain from voting Jan. 2.

"It's really his call," said Dennis R. Schrader, who represents the Laurel area. "Quite frankly, on its surface it doesn't bother me."

Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, who represents the Ellicott City area, said, "Perhaps he should have mentioned it. But I don't know."

Council member Mary C. Lorsung, who represents West Columbia, said, "I have no idea what went on in those [farm sale] negotiations, when they started, when they ended. I'm certainly not going to judge anybody."

C. Vernon Gray, who represents East Columbia, declined to comment.

Mr. Madden -- author of the new ethics law, which calls for Howard developers to disclose their political contributions when they apply for zoning changes -- said Mr. Feaga "has a long record of integrity."

The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, did not apply in the Fulton zoning matter, which came before the County Council last fall.

But Mr. Madden said Mr. Feaga should have formally disclosed his relationship with the developers, much as state legislators are required on specific forms.

Howard has no such forms.

"I think those kinds of things are foolish," Mr. Feaga said.

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