Ethics board finds conflict by Redmond County councilman pushed for passage of towing measure

'Most vocal supporter'

He denies conflict, says bill 'didn't make any difference'

March 13, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Councilman Thomas W. Redmond, owner of a car-towing service, violated county ethics law when he pushed last year for passage of a bill changing the county's towing license ordinance, the county Ethics Commission has ruled.

He is the second county councilman to be found in violation of ethics laws recently. Councilman George F. Bachman was ordered last month to fire his wife, Anna Bachman, who has served as his paid assistant on the council for more than seven years.

The commission said Redmond should not have spoken during a 1996 council work session on the towing license legislation, and he should have revealed before the vote was called his license agreement with the county that gives him exclusive rights to tow cars for the police department in parts of Pasadena.

"Although the County Council member did not vote on the bill amending the towing license ordinance, he was its most vocal supporter, both in the work session and in the public hearing," the four-page opinion states. "His actions constituted an attempt to influence legislation in which he had a direct interest."

Redmond is one of 17 towing company owners who have exclusive agreements with the police department. Between 1992 and 1997, Redmond earned more than $32,000 in towing fees paid by the county, according to the commission. He earned far more annually, however, in fees motorists paid when police ordered their cars towed, according to the commission.

In its Feb. 2 opinion, which drew criticism from a political watchdog organization, the commission also ruled that Redmond's exclusive license with the county to tow cars for the Police Department in Pasadena is not a conflict of interest.

The commission advised Redmond that in the future he may not participate in any legislation, either during work sessions or in public hearings, that affects towing in the county.

Council members who have a direct interest in legislation should leave the room when that matter is discussed, the commission wrote.

Redmond said yesterday he did not try to influence the bill, which lifted a requirement that licensed towers provide a $5,000 bond and required a certificate of insurance instead. And he disputed the commission's contention that he spoke during the public hearing. He responded to another council member's questions during the work session, he said. The bill was passed Nov. 4. with Redmond abstaining from the vote.

"During the legislative session, I didn't say a word about it," Redmond said. "It was beneficial to the citizens and to the county. It didn't make any difference to me."

The requirement for the $5,000 bond, in place since Redmond first got his license in 1967, was antiquated, he said. A certificate of insurance is better than the bond, he said, because it shows that a tower has at least $500,000 of liability coverage.

Posting a $5,000 bond costs $50, he said.

He called the issue of his participation on the legislation "petty."

Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a political watchdog group, disagreed.

"He knew it was the order of business; all he had to say was I am out of this whole discussion," Skullney said. "It's a prohibition against participation. That's not a hard concept. It's at best discouraging to have a public official say, 'Well, I didn't vote on it.'"

She said the commission interpreted ethics laws too narrowly in finding that Redmond's towing business is not a conflict of interest.

"The purpose of the law is to protect the public trust," Skullney said. That should mean avoiding even the appearance of conflict of interest unless there is unjust hardship on a council member, she said.

Redmond said yesterday that with about 500 tows annually at a fee of at least $55 per tow, the license agreement is a small part of his business.

But according to information provided by the Police Department last year, Redmond towed more than 1,000 cars for the department between August 1996 and August 1997. At the minimum rate, that amounts to $55,000 in revenues.

Police Lt. B. Scott Pittaway, commander of the traffic safety section, could not provide updated figures yesterday.

The commission said that the "day-to-day authority" over the licenses lies with the police department and with the Office of Planning and Code Enforcement, not with the county council.

According to the opinion, "a broader interpretation of the meaning of 'authority' would have a severe and unwanted impact on the 'citizen legislature.' If people must choose between their livelihood and service to the public, few people could afford to choose public service."

But, since Redmond has said he earns only a small portion of his income from the towing agreement, asking him to give it up would hardly be too severe, Skullney said.

The six volunteer members of the commission meet monthly, according to Betsy K. Dawson, executive director. The commission does not have the power to issue fines, though it can ask a judge to issue a civil penalty.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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