The Carroll County commissioners approved yesterday a new ethics code that will give the county a six-member ethics commission and a more detailed blueprint for investigating suspected ethics violations.
The commissioners took a few minutes to endorse the code, produced by a task force they appointed in March to revamp the county's ethics enforcement policies.
The commissioners said they will appoint a new ethics commission as soon as next week. The ethics panel will probably include at least a few members from the task force that wrote the code, the commissioners said.
"I think the code as presented to us addresses any of the problems and concerns we had going into the future," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.
The commissioners called for changes in the code after disbanding the previous ethics commission, which they accused of conducting political "witch hunts" against several people, including Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.
Because of vague language in the ethics policy, the county commissioners said, the panel was able to pursue such investigations with no public justification and with no end in sight.
The commissioners approved the new ethics policy one day after State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli released his report on ethics allegations against Gouge, clearing the commissioner of criminal wrongdoing, but saying that some of her actions had the appearance of impropriety.
Gouge said she hopes Montanarelli's report will end a contentious 18 months that began with a complaint against her to the old ethics panel.
The commissioners say they hope the new code will eliminate the confusion that often surrounded the Gouge case.
The most significant change in the ethics code brings back an ethics panel, appointed by the commissioners, that has twice as many members as the former version. The commissioners will designate one of those members to be a chief administrator, or ethics officer.
The chief administrator would handle the panel's routine business and would conduct investigations of ethics complaints - but would not have a vote on those matters.
Former school administrator Richard Simmons has handled the county's ethics enforcement for the past few months as the task force revised proposed code revisions. He has fielded several complaints but said none required an investigation.
Minnich said he will probably nominate Simmons to be the administrator for the new ethics commission and added that Simmons has expressed interest in the post.Simmons was out of town and unavailable for comment yesterday.
The new document also includes a step-by-step explanation of how the ethics panel should conduct investigations.
Complaints would go to the ethics officer, who would decide whether they merit fuller investigation. The officer would conduct such investigations and present the results to the full panel, which would have the power to censure, recommend firings or forward criminal actions to the state prosecutor.
The old code included much less description of procedure.
In another change, the code applies to ad hoc committees appointed by the commissioners to review county land-use laws. That change addresses a controversy that arose in 2001 when some in the county said property-rights advocate Ed Primoff was using his position on an ad hoc committee to increase the value of his land. Primoff said the changes would not have made his land more valuable.
The new code requires less-detailed financial disclosures by county officials and employees but would require gifts to be reported each month instead of each year.
The new code, an amalgam of ethics policies from other counties such as Allegany, Howard, Harford and Anne Arundel, will take effect this week, said County Attorney Kimberly Millender.