Ethics panel rules against lawyer Odenton man told to choose between jobs

September 10, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Odenton man found in violation of the county conflict of interest rules must choose between his position on a budget advisory panel and representing his neighbors in a school redistricting challenge, the Anne Arundel Ethics Commission has ruled.

The school board filed the complaint against David C. Douglas, a lawyer, arguing that he should not have discussed or voted on school capital projects as a member of the Planning Advisory Board while representing Seven Oaks in a redistricting dispute because that case related directly to funding requests for two area schools.

The schools -- Meade Area Middle and Meade Heights Elementary -- were approved this spring and are expected to open next year. However, they will increase capacity in an area of the county where Seven Oaks parents do not want to send their children.

It is unclear if Douglas voted on Board of Education projects this year, though he recused himself from votes in 1995. Minutes of this year's Planning Advisory Board indicate he voted to approve all school projects, but Douglas told the school board and the ethics panel he did not.

Douglas would not discuss the opinion, but he has quit neither the advisory panel nor the Seven Oaks cases. He said he was seeking advice from the county's law office.

"As far as I am concerned, the matter is a confidential matter," he said. "Anything I undertake professionally is important to me, including my work with the Planning Advisory Board."

Douglas was appointed by John G. Gary to a four-year term on the board that began in January 1995.

While Ethics Commission opinions are advisory, there are enforcement mechanisms that can be pursued.

"We would hope that people would take our advice," said Betsy K. Dawson, executive director of the commission, which made the ruling last month.

The victory is a small one for the school system, which has been under siege by the Gary administration.

"Mr. Douglas must decide whether he wants to be an advocate against the Board of Education or sit on the Planning Advisory Board and make decisions on Board of Education projects and vote on them," said P. Tyson Bennett, school board lawyer.

School administrators note that while the Meade schools will not be an issue next year, other schools in West County will be.

School officials decided to challenge Douglas in February, during a period when they were being criticized about construction problems by Gary, who was trying to gain authority to appoint school board members.

"On the advice and at the direction of the board, I expressed concern about Mr. Douglas's participation in the process. We felt his participation really represented a conflict of interest," said Ronald L. Beckett, associate superintendent for business and management services.

The ethics commission decided Douglas's assurances that he would discuss school projects, but would not vote on them was not enough.

It considered Douglas a county employee barred by law from representing anyone "in connection with a matter in which the county has an interest, except in the course of the employee's official duties."

It concluded: "By participating in the decision-making process on both sides of an ongoing controversy, [Douglas], despite his best intentions and regardless of his personal integrity, is sending mixed signals about the impartiality and independent judgment of the [planning board]."

Douglas is representing Seven Oaks residents in two challenges to the school board.

The first involves a board decision to move Seven Oaks children from Odenton Elementary School to the new Meade Heights Elementary School, which parents consider less desirable in part because of a student population with many transient pupils.

The Seven Oaks parents have appealed the redistricting to a state administrative judge who is expected to make a recommendation to the state school board this fall. The other complaint, which accuses the school board of violating the state's Open Meetings Act during redistricting discussions, will be heard in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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