Commissioners' vote brings end to disputed ethics panel

Move is part of effort to revamp county code

February 12, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Carroll commissioners abolished the county's embattled ethics commission yesterday in favor of an appointed ethics officer who will oversee enforcement of the county ethics code.

The vote came after two months of rancor over the fate of the ethics board but only began the commissioners' efforts to revamp ethics policing in the county, leaving many details uncertain.

The three-member ethics commission had been investigating alleged violations by Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge for more than a year, but the commissioners said yesterday's unanimous vote was not meant to thwart that investigation or punish those who conducted it.

The commissioners said the vote was instead a first formal step toward chasing political bias from the ethics enforcement process. They have accused the three members of the deposed ethics panel -- James F. W. Talley, John Harner and Suzanne Primoff -- of conducting witch hunts against political foes such as Gouge.

"This removes politics from the process as much as we can without abdicating our responsibility," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "We want to restore faith in the process and simplify it."

Gouge, who had recused herself from previous votes affecting the ethics panel, said she was comfortable voting for the changes because they were intended to improve a county policy and had nothing to do with the individual members of the ethics commission.

"I really feel this is a step forward for the whole board," she said. "It's a step toward the future."

"This is a step to fixing the process, not toward any past commission," added Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr.

Talley declined to comment when asked about the commissioners' vote. He has said the ethics panel would consider legal action to defend its right to continue investigating Gouge, who is also under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office.

Though yesterday's vote made clear the commissioners' intentions for the old ethics board, it left plenty of questions about how the county will ultimately enforce its ethics code.

Under state law, counties must have a mechanism for receiving complaints about conflicts of interest within government. That mechanism can be a commission or an individual, county attorney Kimberly Millender said yesterday.

According to yesterday's vote, the responsibility will fall to one appointed officer. The commissioners said they would appoint that officer as soon as possible from a list of interested county residents. The ethics officer will serve as an administrator but will probably refer ethics complaints to outside sources such as the state prosecutor's office, the commissioners said.

The county has been referring complaints since the commissioners suspended the ethics panel in December. Chief of Staff Steve Powell said he has referred one complaint to the state prosecutor during that time and will refer a second soon.

After the ethics officer is appointed, the county will ask a task force to review the entire ethics code, the commissioners said. That review could lead to more tinkering with the enforcement procedures.

Minnich floated the idea of creating a pool of county residents from which the ethics officer could create different panels to review different complaints.

"We don't know where this is going at this point," Gouge said. "It's sort of open-ended."

A handful of county residents who attended yesterday afternoon's hearing praised the vote.

"I'm glad to see them bringing closure to this process," said Bruce Falkenstine of Westminster, who has attended several hearings on the ethics issue.

Falkenstine expressed some reservations about giving one person responsibility for ethics enforcement but seemed satisfied after the commissioners explained that an ethics panel might return in some form once the task force is done with its review.

The conflict with the ethics panel began the day after the new commissioners took office in December. In one of their first votes, 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.

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