Call renewed on ethics

Ex-planning director's work with developer raises concerns

November 16, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN REPORTER

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., a former Anne Arundel planning officer-turned-developer who was cleared to work as a consultant on the county's once-a-decade growth plan, has sparked a renewed call to bolster the county's ethics rules.

Many officials agree that Rutter, who stepped down in December after serving four years as the county's top planning official, followed procedure when he sought an opinion from the Ethics Commission about his potential involvement as a subcontractor on the initial phase of the General Development Plan.

Rutter would likely be allowed to serve in a similar capacity in other counties around the Baltimore region, based on how ethics rules are interpreted in other jurisdictions.

But community activists and some County Council members are calling for strengthened county ethics laws. They said Rutter's involvement as a subcontractor, while advocating for projects in Anne Arundel as a consultant for developers, creates the perception of a conflict.

"It makes me believe that we need to look at the ethics laws fresh to see how that works ... so we can eliminate the impression of a revolving door," said Ann Fligsten, an attorney and president of the Arnold Preservation Council.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat, is working on legislation that would bolster the county's ethics rules. He said he's "concerned" by the participation of such a high-ranking former county official as Rutter in creating a document that will decide the fate of billions of dollars worth of projects.

"How this has all unfolded has caused some of us to scratch our heads," Benoit said. "I think we owe it to the public to do something."

Rutter could not be reached for comment.

In Anne Arundel, former public officials may not represent a private party for pay in connection with a county issue if it's one in which they "significantly participated" as public officials. But the Ethics Commission can grant waivers to those former officials if the county's interests would not be "adversely affected," according to the ethics code.

In two other counties

Howard and Baltimore counties have similarly worded ethics rules, but their regulations include a one-year prohibition following an employee's termination of county service. During that period, their rules more broadly limit former employees' involvement in county activities, such as a former land-use official participating in most land-use issues. The one-year restriction is similar to federal rules.

The difference in Rutter's case, legal experts said, is that Rutter is working for the county, so his expertise would presumably benefit his former employer, said Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Dash said that Rutter "followed the highest level of ethics."

"To me, I don't see where he's doing anything wrong," the professor added.

Rutter, a principal for Howard County-based Land Design & Development Inc., is subcontracting for planning consultant TischlerBise to produce the fiscal impact analysis. TischlerBise won the $204,000 contract in June over three other bids and had informed county officials that it intended to hire Rutter. Rutter received a waiver in April from the Ethics Commission.

Anne Arundel officials have stressed that Rutter's involvement would be limited to projecting the impact that future development would have on county services. He would not be involved in making policy decisions, such as on zoning, and would not have direct contact with the county's planning staff.

Praised as director

During his tenure as planning director from early 2003 through December last year, Rutter was lauded for expediting the county's convoluted development review process. But activists accused him of closing the public out of the review process and approving oversized development that was out of character with surrounding areas.

"He works for the development community," said Torrey C. Jacobsen Jr., president of the Greater Crofton Council. "Even when he worked for Anne Arundel County, he worked for developers. I don't think he should come back [to work for the county] the way he's coming back."

Jacobsen said the ethics laws "should be bolstered big-time. It needs to be fixed. This should not be happening."

Supporters say that Rutter's more than 30 years as a planner for Howard and Anne Arundel counties are an asset to the Leopold administration. In his time as planning officer in Democrat Janet S. Owens' administration, Rutter played a key role in preparing Anne Arundel for a huge military expansion around Fort Meade.

"Who better to get than Joe Rutter?" said Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican. "He brings 30-plus years of planning experience to the table, now in three different venues: in Howard County, Anne Arundel County and in the private sector. He has probably as broad a knowledge of the subject as anyone."

Leopold's reaction

County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, said last week that "if I had any doubts that there would be any kind of contact with Planning and Zoning, I would immediately sever the ties."

Asked if he would consider severing ties with Rutter otherwise, Leopold said: "I can raise that question" with Planning Director Larry Tom.

Sun reporters Larry Carson, Josh Mitchell and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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