Commissioners continue ethics talks, debate public hearing on ordinance

Emily Chappell
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times

The Board of County Commissioners discussed getting into compliance with the state’s ethics law after a grassroots organization approached the board in November.

Commissioners addressed the topic Thursday, and ultimately agreed to continue the conversation with a possible decision Jan. 23.

Each of the commissioners expressed thoughts on a potential ordinance, some more outspoken than others.

VOCAL Carroll County presented a letter to commissioners in November requesting the board move forward on passing a stronger ethics ordinance, in accordance with state law. The law was passed in 2010 by the Maryland General Assembly and requires all jurisdictions, including counties, municipalities and boards of education, to pass ethics ordinances that are at least as strict as those required of state officials.

Members from VOCAL spoke again this week before commissioners dove into the discussion. The organization’s members reiterated they want to see the ordinance passed and enacted before the primary election in June.

“Enacting the ordinance as soon as possible will ensure voters’ ability to make a more informed choice at the ballot box from the earliest stage of the election. It will also guarantee that all candidates are duly aware of the standards that they will be expected to meet should they be elected,” according to a statement from VOCAL.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, voiced a number of concerns about such an ordinance during the meeting, which he reiterated after the meeting with a statement emailed to the Times.

“The new ordinance must be revised to prohibit any official from discussing or voting on the budget of any private, government, or quasi-government organization that employs themselves, spouse, or family member,” Rothschild wrote in the email. “It is an unconscionable betrayal of the public trust, and is a severe conflict of interest by any standard of business or political ethics. Voting to provide taxpayer dollars to any organization that pays or gives a commissioner or his family member a salary or pay increase is obscene.”

At the meeting, Rothschild brought up his concern, focusing it on Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, who works part-time for Carroll County Public Schools.

Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, said he thought that type of addition would be “impossible to implement.” If there were such a requirement specific to commissioners or spouses, children and other family members, he added, many of the commissioners who voted on this year’s budget wouldn’t have been able to.

“The fact is that’s just not practical,” he said.

Frazier also disagreed with Rothschild, and said it’s common knowledge he works for CCPS and has been since he ran for commissioner. If he had hidden the fact, Frazier added, this would be a different story.

“It’s not a conflict of interest by reasonable people,” he said, adding that if people didn’t like it, they didn’t have to vote for him as commissioner.

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, also voiced concern, asking if such an ordinance would prevent anyone with any sort of ties from being a commissioner. Wantz is a volunteer with the Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Company.

But, Howard said, the intent of the policy is about disclosure and, from there, the community gets to decide.

“It’s not about you’re not allowed to do those things,” he said. “It’s that the voters know. That’s the issue.”

Commissioners will again discuss the issue on Jan. 23, and will likely vote on whether to move forward to a public hearing, which would occur no less than 30 days later.

This isn’t the first time commissioners have broached holding a public hearing on the matter.

In 2010, the commissioners asked the county's ethics commission to begin drafting changes to the county’s ethics ordinance to comply with state requirements. Nearly two years later, under the five-member Board of County Commissioners elected in fall 2010 — Robin Barlett Frazier, Haven Shoemaker, Dave Roush, Richard Rothschild and Doug Howard — the draft was approved by the commissioners and sent to the State Ethics Commission. That draft was rejected.

Between spring 2012 and early 2014, two other commissioner-approved drafts were sent to the state commission. The third one was approved as being in compliance with the state law.

In December 2014, Carroll’s current Board of County Commissioners was sworn in and planned to adopt the ordinance in 2015, although that never occurred. And, in October 2015, the State Ethics Commission advised the public and Carroll County that “the jurisdiction has not complied with and has not made good faith efforts toward compliance with the requirements of Subtitle 8 of the Public Ethics Law,” according to the public notice.

Of the five jurisdictions not in compliance with the state law, all but one are in Carroll County, including county government itself. Carroll County, Mount Airy, Westminster and Hampstead are not in compliance. The only non-Carroll entity is Gaithersburg. The ordinance focuses on items like financial withholdings and conflicts of interest.

emily.chappell@carrollcountytimes.com

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