Ethics issue arises in talks

Councilman's efforts over firefighters' pay elicit conflict claim

Nephew is firefighter

County official says she will `certainly' seek an investigation

April 18, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel's County Council chairman listened to county firefighters plead for help with a new union contract earlier this month and last night, and publicly spoke in support of the union, without disclosing that a relative would benefit from a more lucrative deal.

Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat, has a nephew, Stephen R. Klosterman, who is a county firefighter. The county's ethics law prohibits council members from participating in matters that would benefit relatives, including nephews.

Betsy K. Dawson, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission, said she will "certainly" ask the commission to look into Klosterman's participation in the meetings.

The question arises as the ethics commission examines comments Klosterman made during a public hearing last year in support of one of the clients of his accounting firm. The issue highlights the fact that many families have multiple members working for the county in various departments.

"You do have people whose brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers wind up coming to work for the county," said Jerome W. Klasmeier, the county's chief administrative officer. "The important thing is to make sure, whatever the relationship, you're not in a position to influence their salary or promotional standing."

Klasmeier, whose brother is a fire lieutenant, confirmed that Dawson asked him last week about his role in firefighter contract talks because of the family tie. The question was reported to be in response to an anonymous complaint. He told her that he has not been involved, he said. Dawson declined to comment on that matter.

One of Daniel Klosterman's colleagues, Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, is married to a firefighter, Mark Muckelbauer.

She solicited, received and appears to have followed a ruling from the ethics commission directing her not to take part in any decision affecting the Fire Department's "budget, personnel, duties and responsibilities or other issues," including union negotiations.

Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, excused herself from the council chambers April 3 when dozens of firefighters came to protest a 13 percent raise offered by County Executive Janet S. Owens as too small in light of the 17 percent raise over three years awarded to police officers. She departed council chambers again last night as the firefighters again came before the council.

Klosterman led both meetings.

In the first session April 3, after Vitale had stepped out, Klosterman -- echoed by his remaining colleagues -- publicly called on Owens to return to the bargaining table and negotiate "in good faith" with firefighters. The remark drew loud applause from firefighters.

In an interview before last night's meeting, Klosterman stressed that his family connection was "absolutely not" a factor in his public comments about the contract. He said he had not discussed the contract with his nephew. "To tell you the truth, I've never even thought about that issue," he said.

The council could be called upon to act in the role of arbiter if the county and union do not reach an agreement soon.

Both sides would appear before the council, and the council would then make recommendations to Owens on wages and other monetary issues.

"If they come before council, it certainly would be an issue I'd have to get resolved," Klosterman said, referring to his family tie.

In May, Klosterman led budget hearings on two county agencies without disclosing he may have had a conflict of interest.

One of Klosterman's clients in his accounting business, TGMI Contractors of Cockeysville, had expressed interest in a contract with the county's Tipton Airport Authority.

The company also held a $16 million contract with the county to renovate its detention center in Annapolis.

Despite a warning from the ethics commission that he should recuse himself from budget discussions with any county department doing business with his client, Klosterman led the hearings with the airport authority and the Department of Public Works, which was overseeing the work at the detention center.

Klosterman said he did not fully understand the warning but would refrain from leading such discussions.

If the commission determines that sufficient evidence exists to merit a hearing, Klosterman would be able to defend himself behind closed doors. Then the commission would decide whether a violation occurred.

The commission's powers are limited.

A violation could lead to a reprimand and request not to repeat a violation.

The commission could also ask a Circuit Court judge to impose afine of up to $1,000. He could not be removed from office.

At last night's meeting, in addition to hearing from the firefighters, the council passed a resolution condemning hate crimes -- specifically the "unconscionable threats" sent to county schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham in connection with her plan to bus students from Mayo Elementary School in South County to temporary quarters at Annapolis Middle School while Mayo's new school is under construction.

The Anne Arundel school board has shelved that plan.

"We can all work together to overcome this and come away united," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat.

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