Hearing focuses on ethics board

Abolishing or expanding panel are among options

Officials won't vote for 10 days

Carroll County

January 03, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Most Carroll residents who spoke at a public hearing yesterday on the future of the county ethics commission called for change, but they split on whether the panel should be eliminated or should be expanded to include more diverse viewpoints.

With the current members of the ethics panel refusing to comply with the county commissioners' requests for their resignations, about 30 Carroll residents attended the hearing yesterday on the commissioners' proposals to change the ethics review process. A few at the hearing said they support a proposal to disband the panel, which has been accused of making politically biased decisions, in favor of having a single ethics officer who would refer investigations to outside reviewers. More said they support a proposal to expand the ethics board from three to seven members.

"It would be more inclusive and offer a broader range of opinions from the community about ethics issues," said Dr. Robert P. Wack, a Westminster pediatrician who in the fall ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the House of Delegates.

Wack said a single county ethics officer could be more open to charges of bias than the current three-member board. Others said the county should not rely on outsiders to police its ethics.

"I don't want it to be construed that we can't handle our own problems," said former county Commissioner Louis B. Scharon of Westminster. "I think that if we have the right people in place, we can handle anything that comes up."

Some countered that Carroll residents can never be completely unbiased in judging their friends, neighbors and business associates.

"I think that in order to take the politics out of the process, we need to abolish the ethics committee," said Michele Johnson of Mount Airy. "Then we need to appoint an ethics officer who's not from the county and has no business contacts or relatives in the county."

Former commissioner candidate Neil Ridgely suggested farming out ethics complaints against elected officials to ethics boards in neighboring counties.

Yesterday's hearing occurred in the shadow of a continuing conflict between the commissioners and the ethics board. Last month, newly elected Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. asked all three members of the ethics panel to resign, claiming incompetence, bias and misuse of office. Ethics commission Chairman James F.W. Talley replied that he and his colleagues would not resign, and said that Jones and Minnich were trying to thwart a continuing investigation of alleged ethics violations by Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

Gouge also is under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office.

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 did not result in charges related to the dispute between Stambaugh and Gebhart, but it unearthed other potential violations, the ethics commission said in a letter dated June 24. 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.

Neither the commissioners nor the speakers at yesterday's hearing directly addressed the Gouge situation. The ethics commission did not send a representative to the hearing, and attempts to reach Talley for comment were unsuccessful.

The two boards had been scheduled to meet Dec. 19, but that was postponed because of scheduling conflicts. The commissioners have not announced a new date for the meeting.

The commissioners left yesterday's discussion almost entirely to the crowd and, in accordance with county standards, won't vote on proposed changes to ethics laws for 10 days. They addressed questions, however.

After several residents said they would worry about the impartiality of a single, county-employed ethics officer, Minnich said he shared those reservations.

"I have a lot of reservations about one person," he said. "It would have to be Mother Teresa or somebody like that to satisfy me."

Other residents asked how an ethics officer would be appointed and how investigations would be referred to outside attorneys or review boards.

The commissioners acknowledged that it is not clear how the ethics review process would work without an ethics board. Gouge said that if the commissioners vote to pursue that option, they probably would draft a specific explanation of how the new system would work, and then discuss that proposal at a public hearing.

"Today, we're just trying to figure out people's opinion as to which way we should go," she said.

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