Ethics Commission rules against ranger accepting rent money

Neighbors can't help Arundel park caretaker

August 24, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission has ruled that a park ranger and his wife who live in a county-owned cabin at Thomas Point Park may not continue to accept money from neighbors to help cover their rent.

The commission, which is made up of seven residents, all appointed by County Executive Janet S. Owens, released the opinion yesterday.

In an unusual move, though, commission members sharply criticized county officials for putting Marion and Carol Coomes, whose salary did not increase two years ago when the county began collecting rent, in a financial bind. Free housing had previously been part of their compensation package, the panel said.

"The commission issues this advice reluctantly because the commission members believe that the park ranger simply got a raw deal from the county government," the opinion reads. "The commission has no jurisdiction over the propriety of the county's decision to change the ranger's contract without payment of additional compensation, but as citizens themselves, the commission members are disappointed with the county's actions."

Dennis Callahan, director of the county recreation and parks department, said the ruling didn't suprise him. But he chafed at the commission's characterization of the policy change as unfair.

"They're just uninformed," Callahan said, adding that no one from his agency was invited to participate in the commission's hearing.

The commission typically meets behind closed doors to make rulings.

As caretakers of Thomas Point Park, the couple has lived for the past 16 years in a 1920s log cabin with a backyard view of South River and the Thomas Point lighthouse.

For most of that time, they paid no rent. But two years ago, Anne Arundel decided to begin collecting it as part of a countywide policy change.

The Coomeses, who earn about $25,000 a year, feared that they would have to leave the park because they couldn't afford the $900 monthly rent.

Their neighbors, aware of their financial plight and eager to keep the exemplary caretakers at the park, decided to help out. For the past two years, they had paid about half the couple's rent. Marion Coomes had said he planned to retire from the county park and recreation system next year.

But last month, a complaint prompted the county ethics commission to begin investigating the Coomes' rent-sharing arrangement. County ethics staff asked the couple for complete lists of those who help pay their rent as well as park permit holders. The couple said they didn't reward those who'd helped them with permits.

In its opinion, the commission cited a county code provision that prohibits government employees from accepting gifts or from using an official position for private gain. And while members showed sympathy for the Coomes, they chastised the couple for accepting the rent money "without first reviewing the ethics law or consulting the ethics commission."

The Coomeses could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Callahan said he hoped the couple would not leave because people in the area appreciate what they do.

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