Group favors ethics panel

Task force recommends five-member committee, rather than one person

`Don't think we can cut corners'

Commissioners to select people who would serve

March 25, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

An appointed task force recommended yesterday that Carroll County use a five-member panel instead of a single administrator to enforce its ethics code.

The recommendation would combine aspects of the county's old system, which used a three-member ethics commission, and the current system, which entrusts ethics enforcement to a single administrator.

Under the recommendation, the county commissioners would name the five-member ethics panel, which then would appoint an administrator from among its members. The administrator would handle routine responsibilities of reviewing outside employment and financial disclosure from county employees and elected officials. The panel members would serve staggered three-year terms.

Task force members said yesterday that fewer questions of political favoritism would be raised if the panel - not the commissioners - appointed the administrator, who would be the most influential ethics enforcer.

"When it comes to ethics, I just don't think we can cut any corners," said Lisa Breslin, a member of the task force.

The commissioners will not be bound to follow the recommendation, expected to be submitted within three months by the task force as part of a completely rewritten ethics code.

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

The county commissioners have asked the task force to suggest how best to combine the ethics officer with an ethics commission. Commissioner Dean L. Minnich has floated the idea of having the ethics officer refer investigations of complaints to citizens committees.

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

But task force members have noted that fixed ethics commissions operate across the state without accusations of rampant unfairness.

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 into 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.

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. They appointed Simmons, a retired school administrator with little history of political activism in the county, to the job. A week later, they appointed the eight-member task force that is helping him draft a policy.

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