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Commissioners discuss protections in ethics complaints

Carroll County's Board of Commissioners is considering changes to the county's ethics ordinance that it says will better protect the accused.

On Thursday, the board discussed an amendment to the ethics code that would enforce the code's confidentiality mandate.

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Allegations of ethics violations at the county level are dealt with by the Carroll County Ethics Commission. After a complaint is submitted, the ethics administrator assesses it to determine whether the commission will make a formal inquiry into the allegation.

All information about ethics complaints is considered confidential until the matter is investigated and wrongdoing is discovered, or until the Ethics Commission, with the consent of the respondent, decides to release the information.

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Some commissioners say the ordinance, in its current form, does not do enough to protect the accused.

Under the proposed change, the ethics administrator and the Ethics Commission would be given the power to dismiss a complaint based on the grounds that one of the parties involved violated the existing confidentiality provision.

In November 2014, when Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, was elected, former state delegate Carmen Amedori notified the Carroll County Times that she had filed an ethics complaint against Frazier, claiming that his dual roles as county commissioner and as a teacher in Carroll County Public Schools constituted a conflict of interest. The Ethics Commission would not comment on the issue at the time. In July, Frazier received notice by mail that he was cleared by the Ethics Commission of wrongdoing.

In its current form, the ordinance mirrors the state ethics law, which also mandates confidentiality but does not include a means of enforcement, County Attorney Tim Burke said.

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One local resident attended the meeting to voice his opposition to the proposed change to the board.

"This is part of a much larger issue," Bob Kurland said, quoting portions of the United States Constitution and the Constitution of Maryland that provide for the protection of free speech and free press.

"You folks take an oath to uphold these documents," he said. "Citizens should be able to speak of these things at all times, in all places."

Attempts in other jurisdictions to enforce confidentiality provisions with things like penalties for those who violate the provision have been defeated in the courts, Burke said. But giving the ethics administrator and commission the authority to dismiss on the basis of a confidentiality violation likely will not create any legal problems, he said.

"You also have rights as citizens who are serving in government," to not have information about complaints made public until after the completion of an investigation, Burke said.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, asked about how the county could prevent the proposed change from being misused.

"What's to stop a respondent from being very clever and leaking this stuff through other people?" Rothschild asked, referencing the possibility of the subject of a complaint leaking the information via a third party in order to get the complaint dismissed.

"It's all the Ethics Commission's call," Burke said.

While the change would not prevent members of the public from speaking out against actions by officials that they do not like, it would provide protection for those accused of violations that are later determined to be unfounded, said Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5.

"It just creates a consequence for that is already imposed upon them," he said.

The matter will be brought to the Ethics Commission for member input and will be addressed again by the Board of Commissioners at a later date.

410-857-3315

Twitter.com/heatherleighnor

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