Ethics plan sparks debate

Guzzone proposes to limit influence of boards' ex-members

`This is an overreaction'

April 26, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Two months after he left the Howard County Board of Appeals last year, Jerry Rushing led a group from his church seeking approval for a religious school expansion - from the Howard County Board of Appeals.

Rushing's actions were "perfectly legal," said County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat whose district includes Savage, where the Bethel Assembly Church of God is located. The church won its case.

But Guzzone wants to change the county's ethics law to prevent anyone from following in Rushing's footsteps for a year after leaving a county board or commission. He might introduce a bill next month to accomplish that change.

It's an attempt, he said, to prevent a perception that a group's familiarity with someone who once served on a county board or commission could influence a decision. However, making the bill apply even to unpaid spokesmen goes further than other Maryland ethics laws. Some Howard officials feel it's going too far, though Guzzone disagrees.

"I thought the idea of board members representing a group, for pay or otherwise, before their previous colleagues was a bad idea," Guzzone said.

The state and most local jurisdictions, including Howard County, ban such appearances for pay, though most ethics laws are limited to appearances in cases that the former officials were involved in while in their government positions. No other area governments have taken the additional step that Guzzone is proposing.

State Ethics Commission Director John O'Donnell said the panel briefly considered Guzzone's idea in February and will informally discuss his proposal today, but it will make no formal ruling on whether it is permissible under state law.

"The commission had some concern" about the targeting of unpaid spokesmen, O'Donnell said.

William B. Waff, a Howard appeals board member and an activist in the southeastern county, agreed with Guzzone that the proposal "is probably good." Referring to Rushing's representation of his church after he left the board, Waff said, "I just didn't think it was appropriate."

Rushing strongly disagrees, and others say Guzzone's bill goes too far in a county where many of the participants in zoning disputes know each other.

The bill is "an insult to the board members, I think," Rushing said. "I was careful not to participate in the Board of Appeals case while I was still a member of the board. I recused myself from the case. I was a citizen [as the church's spokesman]. People have rights."

Planning Board Chairwoman Joan Lancos, a nine-year volunteer, said she, too, opposes Guzzone's plan. "We are grown-ups," Lancos said.

"We can separate our personal interests from the job at hand. This is an overreaction to a situation," she added, noting that she is familiar with the five County Council members but wouldn't hesitate to appear before the council.

"For nine years, I have volunteered for many hours. As a result, I have learned skills. This bill would prohibit me from using those skills [after leaving the board]. This bill limits a volunteer," she said.

County Executive James N. Robey said, "It's increasingly difficult to get people to serve" on boards and commissions such as the Board of Appeals, the Planning Board, the Alcoholic Beverages Board and the Animal Matter Hearing Board. "I don't want to make it more difficult to attract people," he said.

Council members C. Vernon Gray and Mary C. Lorsung - both Columbia Democrats - also have their doubts about the Guzzone bill. Of former board members' appearing before their ex-colleagues, Gray said, "I have no problem with that."

"What is the problem we're trying to solve? I don't know this is a problem," Lorsung said. "Why would we disenfranchise people who had volunteered their time without pay?"

Lancos said, "When you buy a new lawn mower, it says, `Don't use this as a hedge trimmer.' I assume people will do the right thing."

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