Planning board member seeks reinstatement Lennon alleges 'star chamber'

August 04, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

A Westminster attorney, ousted from the county's planning board last month, has filed suit in Carroll County Circuit Court seeking to be reinstated to the seven-member panel.

In his suit, Robert H. Lennon accuses Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates of conspiring to use the Ethics Commission to force his removal. He contends he was a victim of "star chamber proceedings," an allusion to a Medieval English court noted for secret sessions in which victims were tortured into making confessions.

Lennon was removed from the planning board July 15 after a 2-1 vote by the commissioners. He has asked the court to grant a temporary injunction immediately restoring him to the panel. He also is seeking a permanent injunction that would allow him to serve the remainder of his term -- until November 1998 -- on the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The commissioners voted to remove Lennon from the board after a public hearing dealing with the ethics law violations.

Lennon's legal work on behalf of owners of small lots on agricultural land and his vote on a water and sewer request involving a former client constituted "outside employment" in violation of the ethics law, the Ethics Commission said in a three-page opinion read to commissioners July 15.

The ethics panel said Lennon should refrain from such practices in the future but did not recommend expulsion. Lennon told commissioners that he did not believe he violated the ethics law but would agree to the panel's conditions.

In his nine-page suit, Lennon said he was denied "due process" when he appeared before the Ethics Commission on May 15. The panel "permitted anonymous complaints," but did not allow him to cross-examine the complainants or summon witnesses, he said.

Lennon contends the county law establishing the Ethics Commission is invalid because it "fails to provide the minimum requirements of due process" for anyone accused of an ethics violation.

The commission's opinion that led to his ouster is still "open to judicial review," is not final, and consequently, "fails to constitute a proper basis" for removing him, he said.

Elaborating on the conspiracy charge, Lennon said the commissioners told him that if he resigned from the planning board, an unsigned memorandum of opinion from the ethics panel would never be signed or made public. When he refused, the opinion was signed and he was told to appear at a hearing five days later "at which there would be consideration of his DTC removal from office," Lennon said in his suit.

Responding to the suit, Brown said the legal action is "Mr. Lennon's right -- and an appropriate means to have this reviewed. I fully expected it."

Yates said he doubted a judge would find Lennon's due process argument convincing.

"He had an attorney represent him" before the Ethics Commission and during the public hearing, Yates said.

"The Ethics Commission found him guilty and we acted on that finding," he said. "I don't see how that's a denial of due process unless the ethics law is false or invalid. And if it's invalid, it's been invalid all along."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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