Officials' talks to resume on ethics panel

Commissioners to vote on whether to create new means of enforcing code

Political bias is a concern

Issues could be referred to an outside authority

February 11, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

After more than a month of silence regarding the fate of the Carroll ethics commission, the county commissioners will resume talks on proposals to revamp or eliminate the embattled panel.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said he expects the commissioners to vote today on a resolution to establish a new mechanism for enforcing the county ethics code, but said he didn't know what that mechanism would be. He said he envisions a system in which an ethics officer would refer complaints to outside authorities or to a county panel chosen from a pool of qualified residents.

"My concern now, as it has been all along, is to have people of some standing in the community who don't have any vested interest that could somehow be construed as a conflict," Minnich said. Minnich has argued that the current ethics panel is irreparably tainted by the perception of political bias.

The commissioners spent much of December and early last month locked in a public feud with the three members of the ethics board, who said Minnich and Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. were trying to block an investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

Minnich and Jones suspended the three - James F. W. Talley, Suzanne Primoff and John Harner - and told them to resign or be fired by the end of December. But the commissioners have not disbanded the panel, allowing its members to remain suspended without offering definitive word on their future.

Jones did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. Gouge has recused herself from votes affecting the panel because of the investigation against her. Gouge also is under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office, according to Stephen Montanarelli, state prosecutor.

Ethics commission chairman Talley has said he will wait to hear more from the commissioners before discussing the conflict further.

While the ethics board has remained in limbo, the commissioners have considered proposals to add two or four members to the panel or to eliminate it altogether in favor of a single ethics officer, who would refer investigations to outside sources such as the state prosecutor's office. A public hearing on the issue last month produced no clear consensus, although most who spoke at that meeting said they wanted the county to maintain some form of ethics panel.

The ethics uproar began the day after the new commissioners took office, when Minnich and Jones asked all three members of the ethics panel to resign, claiming incompetence, bias and misuse of office.

Talley replied that he and his colleagues would not resign and said his panel's reputation had never been questioned before the Gouge investigation began.

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 stemming from 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.

After a meeting Jan. 7 where an attorney for ethics commission members defended the panel's record, Minnich and Jones said they had heard nothing to change their minds about the suspensions.

Today's hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. in Room 300A at the County Office Building.

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