County spends heavily on ethics Panel's $56,000 tab is most expensive in the area

February 11, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

In Anne Arundel, good government is expensive.

The county's Ethics Commission, a watchdog panel charged with monitoring public officials, spends more on its work than Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties combined. And its production is about the same.

In Baltimore City, which has more than 26,000 employees, the ethics board has no full-time staff and uses free legal services provided by a Washington law firm.

"I don't think I've ever seen a bill from the ethics commission," said Edward J. Gallagher, who has been Baltimore's budget director for 13 years.

Anne Arundel will spend $56,890 this fiscal year on its commission, a sum several of its seven members deplored last week as paltry. Baltimore, by contrast, will spend less than $2,000 on its ethics board from an annual budget almost three times larger than Anne Arundel's.

The spending gap can, in part, be explained by the different budgeting methods used by each jurisdiction. But the explanation for Anne Arundel's comparatively big budget is simpler: In 1992, county voters overwhelmingly said they wanted a full-service ethics department.

Now a fiscally conservative County Council, intent on paring government spending, is stuck with the bill. Last year, County Executive John G. Gary recommended a $94,230 budget for the commission; the council cut it by 40 percent.

"People are telling us we have to tighten our belts," said Councilman George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat. "This is not the way to do it."

Last week, commission Chairman Myrna Siegel accused the council of rendering the panel "impotent" by slashing its budget and approving an executive director's salary that was $13,000 less than she requested.

Scalded by the criticism, several council members indicated that the commission earned the budget cuts. Councilman William C. Mulford II, an Annapolis Republican, called its work "nonexistent."

The commission will meet tomorrow to consider a draft of its annual report, its first since it was appointed in April 1993. It has been without an executive director since November, when James J. Jones resigned.

Commissioners spent their first year rewriting the county's code of ethics, now a 30-page document that expanded financial disclosure rules for public officials and tightened lobbyist registration guidelines.

The new regulations nearly tripled the number of lobbyists required to register with the county.

Three formal opinions

Last year, according to a draft of the annual report, the commission issued three formal opinions on potential conflicts of interest. The rulings, which are essentially guidelines, concern:

* County Budget and Finance Department employees bidding on property at annual county-run tax auctions.

* Police Department supervisors teaching promotional courses to subordinates.

* Hiring members of past county administrations as consultants.

But most of the commission's work is clerical -- making sure annual financial disclosure forms and semi-annual lobbyist registration papers are filed on time.

In addition, the commission's two staff members, who each work 32 hours a week, field phone calls from county employees seeking advice on potential conflicts of interest. Most questions concern permission to accept a second job.

Those duties are no different than ones performed by ethics panels in other Maryland counties and cities. Corruption

investigations rarely are conducted, and when they are, they often are handled by outside law firms.

In 1979, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring all local jurisdictions to establish ethics offices and meet minimum state open-government guidelines.

That role was filled by the county attorney until 1992, when voters approved a referendum creating the Ethics Commission and requiring the county to pay for two staff members: an executive director and a secretary.

Last week, the council set the executive director's annual salary between $31,755 and $42,869, based on a 32-hour work week.

"There's a great deal of difference between the quality of work done by each jurisdiction," said John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission. "It varies from rural jurisdictions to urban jurisdictions."

In Howard County, which has an operating budget about half the size of Anne Arundel's $733 million spending plan, the Ethics Commission uses the county attorney's office for legal advice.

Duties are split

In addition, the county has budgeted $22,000 a year for a special assistant to conduct investigations -- if they arise. But the assistant, Charles Waesche, also works for the Animal Matters Hearing Board.

"He spends about 90 percent of his time with the board," said William A. Theis Jr., assistant to Howard County's chief administrative officer. "Last year, the Ethics Commission didn't use his services once. There was nothing to investigate."

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