Panel set for debate on ethics policies

Task force examines other counties' systems

Carroll County

March 23, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

As they prepare to rewrite the Carroll ethics code, members of an appointed task force say they will probably model their plan on policies from Allegany, Howard, Harford and Anne Arundel counties, all of which entrust enforcement to fixed ethics commissions rather than an individual ethics officer.

The nine-person task force is scheduled to debate the virtues of a commission vs. those of a single ethics officer at its meeting tomorrow afternoon.

The county had an ethics commission until the commissioners disbanded it last month in favor of a single ethics officer, Richard J. Simmons. Carroll is the only county in the state using such a configuration, though the commissioners have said they're open to bringing back some form of ethics commission.

The county commissioners expect the task force to suggest how to best combine the ethics officer with an ethics commission. Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, for example, has floated the idea of having the ethics officer refer investigations of some complaints to ad hoc citizen committees.

Task force member Lisa Breslin said that although the ethics officer makes a good interim solution while the code is being revamped, the county probably needs an ethics commission for the long haul.

"I think we all agree that with something that can be subjective, like ethics, it's best to have checks and balances in place," Breslin said. "I wouldn't want one person to be in such a vulnerable position."

How that commission might be configured remains unclear.

"Whenever we start talking about models, the same few names come up over and over," said Claire Kwiatkowski, a task force member and head of the countywide parent-teacher association. "But we haven't made a decision on how to set up the administration yet."

"We feel very positive that we can come up with some changes that will strengthen the approach to ethics issues in county government," added fellow panel member Bernie Zerkel. "We haven't gotten into very concrete issues of how to do that yet, but that's coming."

The ethics task force, which met for the first time March 13, is scheduled to spend about three months rewriting the county ethics code. The task force will then present its recommendation to the county commissioners.

The commissioners pointed to political bias, incompetence and misuse of office as reasons for dismissing the old ethics commission. Minnich said it might be impossible to prevent political favoritism on a fixed three- or five-member panel.

But several task force members have noted that fixed ethics commissions operate across the state without accusations of rampant unfairness. Some counties, such as Howard, have administrators to handle day-to-day tasks such as processing financial disclosure forms for county employees and officials.

The commissioners say they want a tidy conclusion to the reformation of the ethics process that began in early December, when newly elected commissioners Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. suspended the old ethics panel.

The suspension ended the panel's yearlong investigation of alleged ethics violations by Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. Because of the investigation, which led to a continuing criminal investigation of Gouge by the state prosecutor's office, the county's ethics policies became an issue during last year's commissioners race.

The winning slate of Jones, Minnich and Gouge campaigned on the idea that the old panel had run amok with sprawling investigations of its political enemies. They wasted no time in making good on a promise of change. The commissioners announced last month that they would replace the ethics commission with a single ethics officer who would administer the existing code and supervise the creation of a new code.

Three weeks ago, they appointed Simmons, a retired school administrator with little history of political activism in the county, to the job. Two weeks ago, they appointed the eight-member task force that will help him draft a new policy.

Task force members have said they will borrow from ethics codes around the state in rewriting Carroll's policy. They have said that above all, the code needs clearer language and more detailed explanations of procedure.

Tomorrow's meeting is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on the first floor of the County Office Building in Westminster.

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