Schools veteran to oversee fixes to ethics system

Simmons to supervise conflict-of-interest issues

He also will lead task force

Experience in handling students' appeal hearings

March 05, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Carroll commissioners appointed longtime school administrator Richard J. Simmons yesterday to supervise a restructuring of the county's ethics enforcement system.

Simmons, 62, will field allegations of conflicts of interest in Carroll government. He also will lead a task force charged with improving an enforcement system that was thrown into chaos when the commissioners suspended and then disbanded the three-member ethics commission.

Simmons said he hoped to provide "objectivity and credibility" to the county's ethics enforcement.

"Citizens have to be guaranteed that any allegations about conflicts of interest will be looked at," he said. "But we also have to make sure that any employee who faces an allegation is guaranteed due process."

Although he retired eight months ago from the county school system, Simmons supervises appeal hearings for parents whose children have been suspended long term or expelled.

His experience administering and judging such cases made him an attractive candidate to revamp the county's ethics policies, the commissioners said.

"He's nonpolitical, he knows the judicial system, he's familiar with due process," said Frank Johnson, assistant to Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "He's dealt with hard issues, and we needed someone with a certain mettle to deal with this."

Simmons also carries no apparent political bias, the commissioners said.

"We've heard since before the election that people want to get rid of political witch-hunting, and I'm sure by your reputation that you'll help do that," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, addressing Simmons before the appointment.

Though more than 20 residents expressed interest in helping with ethics reform after the commissioners suspended the old panel in December, few wanted to become the county's new ethics officer. People said the unpaid, volunteer post would be either too time-consuming or too laden with responsibility, Gouge said.

But several people recommended Simmons, the commissioners said, and he agreed to take the post after the board approached him. The Westminster resident was once a seminarian but worked in the Carroll school system for 29 years, ultimately serving as supervisor of student services.

"I have a lot of experience with policy writing and implementation," he said. "And writing a new framework is really what this is about."

Simmons will soon form his task force, which he said might include up to nine members, to begin an intensive review of the county's ethics code. Simmons said that as part of that review, the task force would examine ethics enforcement in other counties and seek advice from the state ethics commission and the attorney general's office.

He said he hopes to give the commissioners recommendations for a revamped enforcement system within three months. Simmons said he didn't know whether the system would rely on a single officer, a new ethics panel or a combination of the two.

The commissioners have floated several ideas for a reconfigured ethics panel. Minnich has proposed creating a pool of county residents from which the ethics officer could tailor review panels for specific cases. That format would allow more flexibility in keeping people with vested interests away from a given issue, he has said.

The stab at restructuring the ethics system follows months of conflict between the commissioners and the old ethics panel, which accused Minnich and Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. of trying to thwart an investigation of Gouge, who also is under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office on alleged ethics violations.

Minnich and Jones accused the ethics panel of being tainted by politics when they first suspended the three members - John Harner, Suzanne Primoff and James F.W. Talley. They said the ethics commission had lost all credibility with Carroll residents and couldn't do its job effectively.

The ethics board members criticized the commissioners for suspending them in the middle of the Gouge investigation. But Jones and Minnich said that investigation, which continued for more than a year, was a perfect example of what was wrong, because it dragged on as a distraction without producing specific charges.

The commissioners announced last month that they would disband the panel in favor of a single officer. The members of the old panel have never offered a formal response, though Talley said several months ago that he might go to court to keep the ethics commission alive.

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