Debate on Carroll ethics policy to resume

Public hearing is today on proposal to eliminate 3-member review panel

January 02, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

After a brief holiday respite, the debate surrounding Carroll's ethics review policies is to resume today, when the county commissioners conduct a public hearing on a proposal to eliminate the county's three-member ethics panel.

In the first forum for public comment on the commissioners' attempt to revamp the county's ethics laws, the board will gather input on the idea of eliminating the panel in favor of a single ethics officer who would refer investigations to outside attorneys. Such inquiries might be handled better by neutral outside investigators than by county residents with political ties, the commissioners have said.

They have not specified how the ethics review process would work in the absence of a panel but said such a structure would conform to state standards. The commissioners also will hear public input on a proposal to increase the ethics panel from three to seven members.

The hearings are the latest step in a dispute over ethics policy between the commissioners and members of the ethics board. The two boards have feuded since early last month, when the commissioners called for ethics panel members James F.W. Talley, Suzanne Primoff and John Harner to step down.

Newly elected Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. asked all three members of the ethics panel to resign by Dec. 31, claiming incompetence, bias and misuse of office. Panel chairman Talley fired back, refusing to resign and calling the request an attempt to thwart an investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

Gouge also is under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office for alleged ethics violations.

The commissioners have said they are considering changes not to protect Gouge but to eliminate political bias from the county's ethics review process. They have said that increasing the size of the board might allow a wider range of views among those appointed to scrutinize county officials.

The two boards were to meet Dec. 19, but the meeting was postponed because of scheduling difficulties.

The ethics investigation of Gouge began after contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the ethics commission about an argument he had with Jill Gebhart, the commissioner's daughter, in December 2001. 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 violations, the ethics commission said in a June 24 letter.

Those alleged violations included the possibility that Gouge had influenced Stambaugh to reduce the cost of his work at Gebhart's Hampstead business by $1,000, according to the letter.

The commissioners voted Dec. 23 to turn over documents relating to the Gouge investigation to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, who said his office was pursuing a criminal investigation of Gouge.

That was the last action in the dispute before the commissioners took the holidays off.

County policy dictates that the commissioners won't vote on changes to the ethics panel until at least 10 days after today's public hearing.

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