Three days after being accused of trying to thwart an investigation of one of its members, the Carroll board of commissioners floated a proposal yesterday to turn over current county ethics probes to an outside party.
The commissioners have scheduled discussion for today on possible changes to the ordinance governing the county ethics panel.
Those changes could include suspending the current panel's operations and handing over current investigations to the state or another agency outside county government, said Frank Johnson, an aide to Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, board president.
The commissioners and the ethics panel are locked into a dispute that includes charges and countercharges of making politically motivated decisions.
They have demanded the resignations of all three members of the county ethics panel. But the members have refused to step down and have questioned whether the commissioners have the legal authority to carry out their threat to fire them.
The ethics commission also charged that a member of the county attorney's office, acting on behalf of an unnamed commissioner, improperly seized files belonging to the commission, which has been investigating Gouge for the past year. The state prosecutor's office has also launched inquiries regarding alleged ethics violations by Gouge.
Johnson said the dispute has reached the point that the county ethics panel has lost all credibility.
"We are not certain that just changing members on the ethics board is enough," Johnson said. "It really comes down to trust in government. Is there anybody here who can handle the investigation and not have it questioned?"
Commissioner Dean L. Minnich agreed.
"We are looking for a way to make sure that everybody has faith in the process and to take away the political overtones now and forever," Minnich said.
In the letter demanding the resignations, the commissioners said that they were willing to meet with the ethics board. At the ethics panel's request, the commissioners scheduled a meeting for Thursday to allow ethics panel members to contest allegations of incompetence, misuse of office and "bias" in their work.
"I have not heard about the meeting, but I will make it a priority to be there," James F.W. Talley, ethics commission chairman, said yesterday.
Minnich said he does not anticipate that the board will take any action Thursday.
In a letter yesterday to the attorneys for the ethics commission, county attorney Kimberly A. Millender refuted the suggestion that the commissioners are trying to derail an ongoing investigation.
"First, the Board [of commissioners] seeks to restore the public's faith in ethics oversight and to some extent to our public institutions in general. Second, the Board seeks to preserve any work on investigations to date," Millender wrote.
The county commissioners cited misuse of office, failure to comply with the ethics code and incompetence in demanding resignations from Talley and his two colleagues, Suzanne Primoff and John Harner, in a Dec. 3 letter. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. approved the action. Gouge recused herself.
Last week, the ethics commission contended that the county ethics code offered the commissioners no authority to fire them. They also called the commissioners' accusations of incompetence "undocumented" and "totally inaccurate" and took Jones and Minnich to task for rescinding a $10,000 budget allocation that had been approved by the previous commissioners.
In her letter yesterday, Millender said, "Maryland case law is clear that any person appointed to an office with a fixed term may be removed for cause."
Johnson, an attorney, added, "As to the issue of cause, there is more than enough reason."
Gouge said she would recuse herself from any action on the ethics issue that her colleagues might take today. She said she has a previous commitment to a meeting in Baltimore Thursday and will not attend the meeting with the ethics commission.
The county investigation of Gouge began after contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the ethics commission about an argument that he had with Jill Gebhart, the commissioner's daughter, last December. Stambaugh accused Gebhart of using her mother's name to try to intimidate him.
The investigation produced no charges related to the argument between Stambaugh and Gebhart, but it unearthed other potential ethics violations, the ethics commission said in a June 24 letter.