Delegate defies party in pay spat Carroll's Getty bucked when all-GOP board OK'd 650 percent raise

December 06, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Ten years ago, a little-known Carroll County Republican named Joseph M. Getty broke ranks and took on Helen Delich Bentley, a congresswoman who was then the most powerful member of the state GOP.

It was the 1988 presidential campaign, and Bentley had quietly stashed thousands of dollars in campaign funds in Carroll's Republican coffers, in part to keep it away from a rival. When Getty, then a member of the county's Republican Central Committee, found out, he refused to keep quiet.

The Federal Elections Commission later fined the Republican National Committee and the treasurer of the county central committee.

Those who remember that incident won't have been surprised last week when Getty -- now a delegate in the General Assembly -- once again put party affiliation aside and asked the state

attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr., to investigate the all-Republican Board of County Commissioners, who had just secretly given themselves a 650 percent pay increase. Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown dissented in the 2-1 vote.

It's the sort of thing that wouldn't be a great career move for an ambitious politician, but Getty doesn't care.

"I don't view myself as climbing the political ladder," Getty says. "I don't have to measure my words or evaluate my stand based on 'Will this hurt me when I want to run for senator, president or whatever?' I can walk away from it tomorrow."

When the 46-year-old Manchester Republican heard last week what the county's all-Republican Board of Commissioners had done, he immediately wrote to Curran and asked him to investigate. The temptation to say that Getty "fired off a letter" wanes in the face of the quiet, measured words he used.

By the end of the week, pressure from Getty, other state delegation members and the public hit its mark. On Thursday, the commissioners rescinded their pay increase.

"If you are in power and he perceives something is not right, it does not matter which party you are in," says Del. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican.

The assessment is bipartisan. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves on a committee with Getty, says he is known for his stances on campaign finance and ethics reforms.

Getty looks like the slightly older brother of Bill Gates, the Microsoft tycoon. But his style is distinctly different. Mild-mannered and thoughtful, Getty tells county residents who call him "delegate" that "my name is still Joe."

Re-elected last month to his second term, he says he draws his inspiration from Carroll County history. If Getty seems to know more about such history than most people, he has good reason.

His mother was a Roop, from a family that settled in Carroll in the 1700s. His father's family, he says, goes back "only to the 1860s."

His father was mayor of Manchester, and Getty lives there with his wife and six children in the 140-year-old brick colonial where he grew up.

"I remember all those political discussions around a pot-bellied stove in my father's workshop," Getty says. "People would talk politics and solve all the world's problems."

He has a bachelor's degree in American studies from Washington College in Chestertown and a master's in American civilization from George Washington University. He earned a law degree in 1996 after nearly four years of night school.

Getty's law office is an unassuming house on Main Street in Hampstead, down the road from Manchester. He calls himself a typical small-town lawyer. He has no staff and answers the phone himself. His briefcase is a well-worn canvas bag.

Getty, who once worked in historical preservation in Washington, has published several volumes on local history through his own Noodle-Doosey Press -- a 19th-century nickname for his hometown, where residents often hung noodles outside to dry.

Fearing a conflict of interest, he gave up publishing when he became director of the Historical Society of Carroll County.

The issue of open government recurs in Carroll history, he says. Pressed for an example, he recalls a former county commissioner -- a family friend, for whom Getty named his oldest son -- who often spoke of a secret tunnel where elected officials would go to make decisions out of the public eye.

There was the Bentley incident in 1988, which drew widespread attention.

And in 1996, Getty cited the county planning commission for violating the state Open Meetings Act when members conducted business by electronic mail in what he called "public debate in private." He has since drafted legislation on electronic communication.

Not everyone agrees that Getty did the right thing last week when he wrote to Curran.

"I think he jumped the gun too fast," said state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a fellow Republican and chairman of the county's delegation. "But I still hold Joe in extremely high regard."

This year, Getty helped rewrite election law. "That kind of work can be like watching paint dry, really tedious, yet Joe was keenly interested," says Brinkley.

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