Members of the county Ethics Commission, created by voters to keep local government clean, have accused the County Council of systematically destroying the commission's effectiveness through deep spending cuts.
Myrna Siegel, the commission's chairwoman, says council members are using "the power of the purse strings to render the Ethics Commission impotent."
Her comments, made during Monday night's council meeting, were dismissed by council members.
"To get up there and say those things, I think that was unethical," said Councilman George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat.
Ms. Siegel's accusation came as the council considered a new salary for the commission's executive director job, a part-time position that has been vacant since November.
A unanimous council approved a salary ranging from $39,694 to $53,587 a year, $10,000 to $13,000 less than Ms. Siegel had requested. Prince George's and Montgomery counties pay the heads of their commissions slightly more. Baltimore County keeps a lawyer on retainer to handle ethics cases.
Ms. Siegel said the pay would make it difficult to recruit qualified candidates for the job, which county law requires be filled by an attorney.
"There's a philosophical problem," Ms. Siegel said yesterday. "There doesn't seem to be any support for the Ethics Commission."
Overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1992, the seven-member commission is responsible for setting conflict-of-interest standards and investigating complaints against the county's 3,732 employees. The commission's budget this year is $56,890, down 39 percent from the previous year.
The commission has met monthly since April 1993, tightening lobbyist-registration regulations and expanding the number of county employees who need to file financial disclosure statements. Since its inception 18 months ago, the commission has issued four written opinions on cases of potential conflict of interest.
Council members say the Ethics Commission suffered budget cuts last year just like every other department, except the Board of Education, which escaped relatively unscathed. While supportive of the commission's goals, several council members, including Mr. Bachman, Annapolis Republican William C. Mulford and Crofton Republican John J. Klocko, say its work has been unsatisfactory.
"I think it's been nonexistent in terms of work," said Mr. Mulford, a former assistant state's attorney. "I'm supposed to be impressed by the fact that there were four opinions written in 18 months?"
James J. Jones, who resigned as the commission's executive director in November, also testified at the hearing.
He said the "effectiveness of the commission has already been impaired by the council's actions." Mr. Jones left the position, which paid him $47,721 annually, six months after the council cut the commission's budget.
"The reason I left was because of the uncertainty surrounding the job year after year," Mr. Jones said in an interview yesterday. "I wasn't going to put up with it any longer."
County Executive John G. Gary has 10 days to sign the salary bill, which he is expected to do. The bill becomes law 45 days later.
Once that happens, the commission will begin advertising the position. While Ms. Siegel and Mr. Jones say the applicant pool will be small, council members disagree.
"With the surplus of attorneys out there, I don't think that will be a problem," said Mr. Klocko.