Letter noted potential land conflict

Message was sent to county officials by zoning member

Action taken only recently

Ethics panel to hear case of property owner who backed road plan

September 12, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

County commissioners were warned nearly six months ago that planning commission member Grant S. Dannelly supported rerouting a road through his property, but the board did nothing to investigate the possible conflict of interest until this month, a county official says.

In a letter sent in March, Board of Zoning Appeals member Hoby Wolf informed the three commissioners that Dannelly owned the small parcel that lies in the path of the proposed relocation of Ridge Road in South Carroll.

Dannelly supported the proposal during workshops on the Freedom Area Comprehensive Plan, a blueprint for development in the county's most populous area. Dannelly, however, did not disclose the potential conflict.

"This is the most blatant use of an appointed position that I have ever seen firsthand," Wolf wrote in a letter to the commissioners March 24. "Dannelly never informed the Commission he had had any financial gain in seeing the road approved. There have been numerous discussions on the road extension giving ample opportunity for his land ownership to be made known to the Commission."

Wolf asked that commissioners "bring charges to the Ethics Commission of Dannelly's misuse of his position." But they didn't until last week, when the matter was forwarded to the county ethics commission.

If the commissioners had acted on the letter earlier, Wolf said, they could have asked Dannelly about the potential conflict before he voted on the Freedom plan in July.

Dannelly was one of four planning members who voted in favor of the document.

"Until it came down to the final vote, he could have disclosed it," Wolf said. "It would have been a nonstory. They could have warned them."

But the commissioners said they did not view the letter as a pressing issue.

"I vaguely remember reading it. At the time, I didn't pay too much attention. It wasn't a road we were building," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "It was a remote issue at that point. That's probably the reason I didn't see it as a big conflict. It was sort of a nonissue. Maybe that was an oversight on my part."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell also said he received Wolf's letter, but did not act on it. He could not explain why.

"I don't know. It just didn't happen," he said.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier could not be reached to comment.

Gouge said the board asked the ethics commission to investigate the issue after a complaint from a county resident and questions from the media about the potential conflict.

The case will be heard by the county ethics commission next month, said Laurell Taylor, county attorney.

Dannelly said he regrets not disclosing the potential conflict to the planning commission, describing it as an oversight.

Asked why he did not go to the ethics commission himself with the allegation, Wolf said it was not his job.

"I'm not the policeman," he said.

Wolf said he also feared he would be accused of making a political attack against Dannelly, whose views on growth conflict with his. Dannelly is a slow-growth advocate; Wolf has been a proponent of various developments in South Carroll.

"If I brought this up, they would say it was personal," Wolf said. "It's nothing personal at all."

When she received Wolf's letter in March, Gouge said, the tension between Dannelly and Wolf crossed her mind.

"There are not good feelings between the two -- not that that would make me dismiss the letter. There are some strong feelings there," she said.

Gouge was not the only one who thought about Dannelly's relationship with Wolf.

"I question in my own mind whether this is a real charge or whether it is politically motivated," said Melvin Baile Jr., a planning commission member.

Dannelly was the focus of an earlier dispute, which some observers also viewed as a political attack.

In 1997, Edward Primoff, the president of the Carroll County Landowners Association, urged county commissioners to fire Dannelly after accusing him of making derogatory comments about Asians and those with Alzheimer's disease during a planning conference.

Deborah Ridgely, who was vice chairwoman of the planning commission, dismissed that complaint, saying it came from people who disagreed with Dannelly's slow-growth policies and wanted him off the commission.

Two commissioners at that time, Dell and Richard T. Yates, asked Dannelly to resign.

But Dannelly, calling the accusations "baseless," refused to give up his seat.

Politics may be fueling this new dispute, Dannelly said.

"Fundamentally, it is an ethical issue, but I would assume that some folks will use this for political reasons," said Dannelly, who declined to comment further.

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