Ethics commission plays a waiting game


March 25, 2001|By MIKE BURNS

THE Carroll County Ethics Commission has yet to render a decision on a citizen complaint, filed last October, that county commissioners paid an excessive amount of taxpayer money for a small piece of dairy farm on which to build a downtown bypass for the town of Union Bridge.

Meanwhile, the county this month opened bids on building the road and rail spur project and has set construction to begin in May.

Residents living along the proposed route have complained about traffic and noise problems, but it's still full speed ahead. The state is going to conduct a traffic analysis, but that is not going to result in substantial, if any, changes in the project.

These are not, it should be understood, the citizens profiting so famously from the lucrative land deal cut by Commissioner Donald Dell with a couple of fellow farmers for the property.

That was the "deadline" purchase that Mr. Dell toughly bargained last summer with Sidney and David Lease for a little over 10 acres of their spread (which had conveniently been rezoned for industrial use).

His negotiations ended up costing Carroll taxpayers over six times the independently appraised value of the property, you will recall. The proud commissioner explained how he had actually saved Carroll citizens a ton of money by moving swiftly to meet a state funding deadline.

There was, in reality, no deadline for concluding the purchase (and right to use an additional 15 acres of Lease land if needed).

The state Department of Transportation said so. Said it without equivocation. Said the state grant of $3.5 million for the project would not be forfeited if the county didn't grab the land last summer. Said it was up to the county to decide how quickly to acquire the land, by purchase or eminent domain.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Dell continues to maintain that he has a letter from someone in the state - can't remember who - that specified some deadline -can't remember exactly what when.

But Mr. Dell claims to have misplaced that letter. And he hasn't the foggiest idea of how to get a copy of the alleged missive from the people at state transportation whom he so earnestly consulted.

The reason for the road/rail bypass is the huge expansion of the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. facility just outside town. That $265 million project will double the output of the 90-year-old plant. It's the largest private development project in the history of Carroll County.

Odds are that the ethics panel won't find grounds for upholding the complaint, filed by an Eldersburg woman.

Realistically, there's little basis for the commission to find legal transgression. There's no smoking gun, no apparent political payoff, in the decision by Mr. Dell and Commissioner Robin Frazier to pay the exorbitant sum for the acreage.

These days, even a campaign contribution by someone who gets a favor from public officials doesn't lead to legal sanctions.

And in a small county, there's ample opportunity for everyone and his brother to be linked in some way to a campaign donation to some elected candidate.

There's also no legal reason why the county's elected leaders couldn't rush to buy the land, instead of taking the property and letting the court decide on a fair price later. A Circuit Court judge already said that, in response to a lawsuit filed by a community group.

Admittedly, eminent domain would have been the better course to take, both to protect the public purse and for public appearances.

Especially since there's no evidence of any deadline or pressure from the state to begin the road project. Lehigh won't finish its construction until late next year.

Sadly, that sense of public propriety seems wanting in Mr. Dell. Recall his effort to jack up his commissioner compensation by 650 percent back in 1998. That was in a last-minute agenda item just before he was to begin a new term.

Public outcry, but more importantly the possibility of legal action by the state attorney general, forced a reluctant rescission of that unseemly decision.

The Lease deal doesn't do much for his image as a careful warden of taxpayer money. Nor for the image of Ms. Frazier. She voted to approve the purchase despite the premium price tag.

She later explained in a letter that the shrewd real estate bargaining of The Donald had produced real savings for the county.

The commissioners had earlier budgeted $1.5 million to build Shepherd's Mill Road as a bypass, she noted. By spending little over half that amount for the Lease property, the county had gained the $3.5 million state roads grant and saved $650,000. There are a few holes in that logic, but nothing to trouble the ethics commission.

The ethics body hasn't avoided cases brought before it. But it often takes its time in responding. And there have been questions raised about how extensively it pursues investigations.

The Union Bridge case deserved a prompt inquiry and resolution. Even though there didn't seem to be much foundation for action, the ethics commission should have done its duty and let the public know its verdict before now.

The project is too far advanced at this stage for the commission to affect the outcome. But the panel's lethargy will affect the public's view of its future effectiveness.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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