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Possibility of court involvement in Frazier ethics complaint

The complainant who filed an ethics complaint against Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, citing a possible conflict of interest because he works for the school system, said she is prepared to take the issue to court if needed.

Carmen Amedori, who filed the complaint, said if the county's Ethics Commission votes that Frazier's dual employment as both a commissioner and school teacher is not a conflict of interest, she will go to the courts in an attempt to get a writ of mandamus issued prohibiting Frazier from voting on any school budgetary matters, as well as mandating he recuse himself from all meetings with school officials.

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A writ of mandamus is an order from a court to a subordinate governing body or official ordering proper fulfillment official duties or a correction of an abuse of discretion, according to the Cornell University Law School's website.

Amedori, a former state delegate, filed the complaint with the Ethics Commission in November that stated Frazier's dual employment constituted a conflict of interest. Frazier was a full-time teacher and wrestling coach at Century High School and an employee of the Carroll County Public Schools system but has since limited his role to part-time to allow him to perform the duties of county commissioner.

As a commissioner, Frazier is a member of the county's executive branch, which grants him the power — along with four other commissioners — to make decisions regarding the budget, which includes funding for the public school system. As a teacher, he could reap the benefits of that decision, Amedori said.

"He is allotting money [for the school system], voting on this allotment of money, which is more than 50 percent of the budget, then standing at the end of the line and asking for his paycheck," Amedori said. "I don't know how anyone could see it differently."

The commission normally has five members and an administrator, but with the removal of Joe Burns, the former ethics administrator, in November, commission member Brian Mobley was appointed to the position, leaving a vacancy on the five-member board.

Burns was removed from the position of ethics administrator after an email he sent to the Carroll County Republican Central Committee was made public. Several commissioners questioned the email's content and many perceived it as being unethical, both in what appears was its intent and in the fact that Burns was contacting someone outside of the ethics commission about an ethics complaint.

The email began with the subject line: "Upcoming Dennis Frazier situation - Let the games begin!" and in the letter Burns began addressing what some commissioners thought was a plan to get Frazier removed from office.

The county commissioners accepted recommendations for the vacancy from the community at large as well as applications prior to a closed session last week, during which they voted to appoint another member to the ethics commission. As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, they had not notified that person or the public of their appointment, county government spokeswoman Roberta Windham said.

Now that the county commissioners have selected someone to fill that vacancy, a tie would be impossible, and the ethics commission will be able to make a ruling in the case, Mobley said.

But Mobley said regardless of the decision made, he believes it is unlawful to release any information concerning the ethics complaint unless agreed upon by the respondent — in this case Frazier.

It is also noted in the ethics ordinance that any finding that concludes a violation took place becomes public knowledge. Mobley said he was not aware of this provision.

In a letter accompanying her ethics complaint, Amedori wrote there is precedent for upholding the charges of the complaint, provided by the commission.

In 2008, the ethics commission issued an advisory opinion that former Commissioner Michael Zimmer, who was a substitute teacher, should not hold the position of commissioner as well as a position funded by county government.

While campaigning, Frazier made it a point to seek the counsel of both the Maryland State Education Association and the state attorney general. Letters from both offices, he argues, make it clear that holding both positions is not prohibited by state law.

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The opinion of Kathryn Rowe, assistant attorney general, according to one letter, is: "The county commissioners do not control hiring and firing of the employees of the board of education, and do not have supervisory authority over them. Moreover, while the annual budget of the board of education is submitted to the county commissioners, they do not have the authority over individual salaries. As a result, it is my view that there is no incompatibility of office that would require an employee of the board of education to resign if elected as county commissioner."

The opinion of MSEA, issued in September, states: "While there are county ethics policies to consider, any such policy must yield to legislative intent, which has been clearly expressed. The typical provisions that may raise concern expressly preclude a county employee from participating on behalf of the county in any matter that would have a 'direct financial impact' on them individually, or any family member; or a provision precluding outside employment that would 'impair their partiality or independence of judgment.' In the case of teachers employed in the county, a county council and its decision on the budget of the school system does not result in a direct financial impact on a teacher … therefore this provision is not implicated."

Amedori said the letter issued from MSEA pertained to county council members in a charter government system, not the commissioner system that Carroll County uses. In a charter government, an executive director issues a proposed budget, and the county council merely advises that person on any potential changes, but is not allowed by law to alter any budget items. Therefore, she said, a county council member's impact on the budget is minimal in comparison to a county commissioner.

Amedori said a recent advisory opinion the Frederick County Ethics Commission issued concerning a similar issue with two of the county's council members was appropriate, and MSEA's opinion reflects that.

The Frederick commission ruled that employment by the Frederick County Public School System and holding political office as a county council member did not create a conflict of interest. The ruling was determined in large part based on the adoption of a charter government system in December, according to the advisory opinion.

It was also noted in the decision that the ruling was determined in part because of a new ethics ordinance that was adopted in November 2011 to comply with state ethics law, something Carroll County has not yet done.

Frazier said the Frederick commission's opinion was also based in part on the same two letters that he has used to defend his right to hold both positions. He said the two county council members in question presented these same letters to the commission, which helped in its determination.

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"I guess the question is, it's OK everywhere else but not in Carroll County?" Frazier said.

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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