Merdon's letter on tax cuts draws ethics complaint

Invitation to aged is called partisan

September 20, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

A two-page mailing from Howard County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon inviting seniors to testify on his bill offering them property tax cuts has prompted a complaint to the county Ethics Commission.

The mailing was also criticized at Monday night's County Council hearing by Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, who complained that the two pages were misleading and that Merdon, the Republican candidate for county executive, behaved in an "unnecessarily partisan way" by excluding Democrats from a concept that "is actually a pretty good idea." The bill offers a 25 percent property tax cut to seniors 70 and older with incomes less than $75,000.

Merdon dismissed Ball's complaints as a "political speech," and said yesterday that he used campaign money for the mailing, which "clearly disclosed how the letter was paid for," and "was completely legal."

The letter was labeled at the top "From the Desk of County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon." At the bottom, the page had a campaign authority line labeling it as campaign literature. The second page was a copy of a County Council news release issued by Merdon and Charles C. Feaga, his Republican co-sponsor, when they announced the bill last month. That page carries the county seal, which by county law is not allowed on campaign materials. Residents were asked to attend the hearing, or call or e-mail their councilman on the issue.

Ball said Merdon often portrays himself at candidate forums as a bipartisan leader who works well with Democrats. But Ball said Merdon excluded the council Democrats in creating the tax bill and sent letters to Ball's constituents urging them to support the bill without telling him.

He would have been happy to work with the two Republicans on the measure, Ball said.

"I got 30 calls and e-mails on this bill," Ball said. The letter and the county seal on the news release Merdon mailed "looks like it was authorized for the entire council," Ball added.

A complaint about the letter was received by the county Ethics Commission, confirmed Jeff Starnes, the commission's executive secretary, who said he recused himself from the issue because he is a political appointee.

Commission procedure is to discuss any complaint or request for an inquiry to see if the matter should be investigated, Starnes said, though no meeting is scheduled before next month.

Merdon said Starnes should not have confirmed the ethics complaint. "That is an ethics violation," he said.

Merdon refused to say how many letters his campaign mailed, and he said complaints about his letter are "ridiculous. If I had done it from the council, they would have complained," he said. "The fact is they [Democrats] know this is an excellent idea. They're just mad they didn't think of it and do it themselves."

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