Ethics ouster 'unlawful,' judge rules Lennon permanently reinstated as member of planning panel

'In no way' malfeasance

Commissioners Yates, Brown say they will appeal the ruling

December 12, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Westminster attorney Robert H. Lennon has been exonerated by a circuit judge and permanently reinstated as a member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission.

County Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates fired Lennon on July 15 after receiving a county Ethics Commission report saying Lennon had violated the county ethics law.

The commissioners requested the report in March after receiving letters from slow-growth advocates complaining about Lennon, said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a Lennon supporter.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner, who restored Lennon to the planning panel on a temporary basis Aug. 21, ruled Tuesday that Lennon has not violated the county ethics law and that his ouster from the planning commission was "unlawful."

The Ethics Commission said in a three-page finding in July that Lennon violated the county ethics law by representing clients entitled to carve lots from agricultural property without having to through the subdivision process. In other words, Lennon was "employed by a business entity" regulated by the planning panel. Also, Lennon erred by discussing and voting on a county water and sewer agreement that included a former client, it said.

In a 15-page opinion, Lerner said the Ethics Commission's conclusions were erroneous. The planning panel does not regulate off-conveyances -- lots that don't have to go through the subdivision process -- except in unusual circumstances. Those circumstances were not present in this case, Lerner said.

On the second charge, Lennon excused himself from discussion and votes on the water and sewer issue, and did not participate in the decision until months later, when the property owners were no longer Lennon's clients, Lerner said. The latter participation might have been "poor judgment," but "in no way does his conduct constitute malfeasance in office," Lerner said.

Malfeasance, inefficiency and neglect of duty are the only grounds for removal of a planning commission member. Brown and Yates defined malfeasance as "mere misconduct in office," Lerner said, but that is not a proper standard.

Malfeasance is "the doing of an act which a person ought not to do; evil conduct; an illegal deed," Lerner said.

After learning of the Ethics Commission findings in July, Lennon said he did not believe he had broken the ethics law but nonetheless agreed to go along with the commission's demand that he not represent off-conveyance clients for the remainder of his term.

When Brown and Yates went beyond that recommendation and fired him, Lennon cried foul. He and his supporters said his ouster was politically motivated.

Brown and Yates were elected on a slow-growth platform, but Lennon often voted for new subdivisions.

"Fortunately, our system of laws and government eventually does lead to other forums that understand the obligations of due process, impartiality, equal treatment, fair play and accountability for misconduct," Lennon said at the time of his ouster.

Yesterday, in a prepared statement, he said he had been "vindicated" by such a forum and gave thanks to Dell, members of the county's General Assembly delegation, and "hundreds of citizens of Carroll County" who supported him.

"It is my hope," he said, "that the public will demand a full accounting of the taxpayers' dollars that were misspent in this effort to misuse the Ethics Commission process for political purposes."

He urged Yates "to use his leadership position as President of the Carroll County Commissioners to stop any further waste of public funds and time on this matter."

As for Brown -- who was not mentioned by name in the prepared statement -- Lennon said, "to the extent that the county's actions to date were the result of a commissioner being ill-advised, hopefully he will now use [the judge's] decision to re-evaluate the status of those who so advised him."

Yates and Brown say they will appeal Lerner's ruling.

"We abided by state rules" when drafting the county ethics law, Yates said. "We feel we complied with the state mandate. I'm a little taken aback. If the Ethics Commission finding is wrong, what do we do in the future? Who do we listen to? If they're wrong on this, they may be wrong on other things. There is no precedent. We need a test case."

Brown expressed similar views. "If the Ethics Commission finding is in error, Bob Lennon should and will remain" on the planning panel, he said. But "I assume we and the Ethics Commission will appeal. This case goes far beyond Bob Lennon. I wonder what recourse local governments have for dealing with officials who behave badly but not criminally. I'm looking forward to hearing the word of the Court of Appeals on it."

Lennon agrees that the case goes beyond personal redemption. "It's about a county commissioner using the Ethics Commission for his own personal Gestapo and as a tool for intimidating those who disagree with him," Lennon said. "The decision today sends a message that the courts will not tolerate this type of conduct."

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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