Commissioners appoint eight to ethics task force

Code revision suggestions expected in three months

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

The Carroll commissioners took another step toward revamping the county's procedure for enforcing ethics standards yesterday, appointing an eight-member task force to rewrite the ethics code in more specific language and to develop a consistent procedure for reviewing allegations against county officials.

The commissioners said they expect the group, led by recently appointed county ethics officer Richard J. Simmons, to give them recommendations for changes to the ethics code within three months. County chief of staff Steven D. Powell said the commissioners especially want a more defined procedure for addressing complaints and a new arrangement for the panel that would hear those complaints.

The task force consists of several educators, a pastor, an attorney and a former county commissioner.

"We are confident that our choices will provide a structure that will refine the process. They have a strong leader and should be an energetic group," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. "This function of our organization needs to be fair and independent."

The commissioners launched their reformation of the county's ethics policies during a conflict with the old ethics panel, which they suspended in December and disbanded last month.

The members of that panel accused Jones and fellow Commissioner Dean L. Minnich of trying to thwart an investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who also is under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office for alleged ethics violations. Jones and Minnich accused panel members of conducting never-ending witch hunts against political enemies such as Gouge.

Minnich took the lead on the issue, saying the county needed to start over and rid the ethics enforcement process of politically interested people. He said yesterday that the task force gets as close as possible to meeting that goal.

"This is a qualified, credible group of Carroll citizens, and we look forward to their progress," Minnich said.

The task force consists mostly of people who have not been vocal in recent county political battles. The members are:

Louis B. Scharon, a former county commissioner and former president of the county school board.

Roberta Winham, an attorney who specializes in corporate bankruptcy.

Lisa Breslin, a Westminster community activist and free-lance writer who teaches writing at McDaniel College and who managed Democrat Robert Wack's campaign for state delegate last year.

Clare Kwiatkowski, president of the countywide PTA.

Dolores Snyder, vice chairwoman of the board of trustees at McDaniel College.

Bernie Zerkel, a Westminster pastor who has served on community boards in Carroll and Frederick counties.

Bill Ecker, a motivational speaker from Westminster and former superintendent of Caroline County public schools.

Mark Vigliotti, principal at William Winchester Elementary School in Westminster.

Powell said the commissioners approached all eight based on recommendations from other Carroll residents or organizations. The commissioners chose the task force from a pool of more than 20, he said.

The task force will hold its first meeting at 10 a.m. Friday in the County Office Building in Westminster. Simmons and several members of the task force said they would begin by comparing Carroll's ethics code to those in surrounding counties.

"After that, we'll be more comfortable that our laws fit in with what's going on around the state and then we can get down to deciding if they should be carried out by one, two, three or however many people," said Kwiatkowski, who has served on the county school system's ethics panel.

The commissioners have stated the panel's mission more clearly each time they have discussed the ethics code. Although it remains unclear what the county's enforcement system would look like, the commissioners seem to favor having an appointed ethics administrator, Simmons, and an ethics commission that would review ethics complaints about county employees or elected officials.

Minnich has floated the idea of creating a pool of county residents from which the ethics administrator could choose the best combination of people to hear a given case. The flexibility of such a system would make it less likely that ethics panel members would be asked to pass judgment on their political friends or foes, Minnich says.

The commissioners have asked the panel to recommend members for a revised ethics commission and have said the new ethics panel might include people from the task force.

The commissioners have said they would want a reconfigured panel to conduct shorter investigations - the Gouge inquiry lasted more than a year - and stick more closely to duties outlined in state ethics laws.

"It's important both for the new members of an ethics commission and for county employees who are subjected to the code that everyone understand" the guidelines, Powell said. "We need to give true structure to this ordinance."

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