Panels discuss ethics in wake of allegations

Landowners' interests weighed against public trust

June 20, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

The tedious deliberations about zoning and traffic flows that typically bog down the Parole Growth Management Committee took a lively left turn recently.

The new topic: ethics.

"We felt it was time to address it," said John Fischer, the committee's co-chair and one of 30 Annapolis-area residents the county executive appointed to help map the future of a nearby business district. "We wanted to tackle it before there was any confusion."

The Parole panel is one of many in Arundel where the topic of ethics has burbled up lately, sparked by recent focus on a handful of questionable land deals. From the smallest local advisory boards to the County Council, Anne Arundel government is in a state of introspection.

"What we've realized is that there needs to be more clarity about ethics," said Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a County Council member. "We need to rid government, on every level, of impropriety and the appearance of impropriety."

Samorajczyk's fear, one shared by a range of county employees and volunteers, is that recent allegations of ethical lapses are chipping away at the public's faith in their work.

On more than a dozen local committees, members have differed over a single vexing question: Can people with a financial stake in the community be trusted to act in the public's best interest?

One case in particular -- that of Odenton developer Jay Winer -- illustrates the complexity of the problem. Winer sits on two local committees involved in mapping future development in the west county community. He also owns a great deal of land there.

As a result, recommendations he makes may be in the public interest, but they also could benefit him financially. And in at least one case, that's what has happened. Documents show he helped arrange a land deal with the county that earned him a hefty broker's fee and could boost the value of properties he owns.

`Taints the whole process'

When word of the possible conflict reached Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., he called on Winer to give up his public posts.

"Who is his allegiance to?" Klosterman asked at the time. "That's the problem. You no longer know if he's looking out for himself or for the public, and that taints the whole process."

Winer has declined several requests for interviews with The Sun, but has told others he did nothing wrong. He did not resign, and many, including the members of his Odenton committees, supported that decision.

The area's Small Area Planning Committee passed a resolution that urged Winer to "hold the course in all his positions," but it followed that decision with a second resolution: that members abstain from voting on matters in which they have a direct financial interest.

Varied solutions

Elsewhere in the county, questions of competing allegiances have sparked similar debates, with varying outcomes.

In Jessup, the vice president of a major development firm resigned from the area's planning committee rather than give the impression he would be lobbying for his company, which has zoning business pending with the county.

In his May 26 resignation letter, Constellation Real Estate Senior Vice President Robert R. Strott said he regretted having to leave, but saw no option. Exposing himself to "the possible suggestion that I may have used my position on the committee as a vehicle to enhance or benefit my company's interest is unacceptable," he wrote.

Councilwoman Shirley Murphy approved of Strott's candor, and promised that the county would help clarify ethics rules for such committees. The ethics commission has no oversight over small committees, and Murphy said it lacked authority to issue substantial penalties for most violations.

Recusal suggested

To that end, she and other council members are drafting a bill to revise the county's ethics regulations for government servants on every level.

Members sat down this month with Betsy K. Dawson, executive director of the county ethics commission, to discuss the best approach.

"My feeling was, if you are appointed to a board and you're concerned about a possible conflict, you should recuse yourself," Murphy said, noting that such a policy exists for council members, but not for the county's smaller boards and committees.

Developers' role defended

Not everyone agreed that participants should be so quick to recuse themselves.

Thomas C. Andrews, who heads the county's land-use office, said developers play an integral role in the planning process.

"They certainly deserve a place at the table," he said. "To exclude them would throw things off balance."

On the Parole committee, a spirited evening discussion ended with a compromise.

"In the end, we coalesced around the concept of full disclosure," said Fischer, the committee's co-chair. He said members were asked to tell everyone up front what their financial interests would be when discussing a proposal.

"Somewhere along the line, you have to hope that humans are basically honest," he said. "I don't mean to make that sound trite, but you have to hope people will let you know what their motives are. After that, we can all make informed decisions."

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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