Carroll County may have to dip into its financial reserves to appeal a civil case in which a Westminster attorney was found innocent of ethics violation charges and restored to the county's planning board.
County officials said yesterday that they had spent $22,000 defending their case against Planning Commission member Robert H. Lennon and had only $14,000 left in a fund used by the county legal office to hire outside counsel.
County Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates fired Lennon from the the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission on July 15 after receiving a county Ethics Commission report that stated Lennon had violated county ethics law.
Lennon sued the county, contending he had not violated the law and had been illegally removed from the commission.
Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner agreed with Lennon on both counts and ordered him reinstated to the commission.
The $29,200 the county has paid Towson attorney James R. Chason to advise the Ethics Commission and defend itself was covered by insurance, a county official said Wednesday.
Yesterday, however, Brown said at a weekly news conference that the staff had made an error in stating that Chason's expenses had been covered by insurance.
"I really apologize for this misinformation getting out," Brown said. "There was no intent to mislead."
Brown said the commissioners put $50,000 in the county budget to cover the cost of outside counsel. All but $14,000 of that has been spent, which includes Chason's fees, said Steven D. Powell, the county's budget director. The county also used 260 hours of its own legal staff's time on the case at an estimated cost of $20 an hour.
Insurance paid $7,200 of Chason's bill, Powell said, because it appeared that Lennon might be seeking damages. If at some point Lennon does seek damages, insurance might pay the remainder of Chason's fees, Powell said.
Although local attorneys estimate the cost of an appeal could run $20,000 or more, finding additional money would not be a problem, Brown said. The county has "hundreds of thousands of dollars of unallocated money" in this fiscal year's budget that could be tapped if needed, he said.
The commissioners have until Jan. 11 to decide whether to appeal the Lennon decisions, but have not yet met to discuss the matter.
"I've said all along we should appeal this thing," Brown said.
Yates said he also favored an appeal.
"I'm still concerned about leaving the Ethics Commission holding the bag," he said. "I've said all along I would abide by the judge's decision, but I'm concerned what this means for the Ethics Commission. I want to wait till I hear from them. If they decide to pursue [the appeal] then we will probably do that."
Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a Lennon supporter who characterized the county's case against the Westminster attorney as a "witch hunt," said he would "definitely" vote against appeal.
"The judge said that Bob Lennon is not guilty of anything," Dell said, "and I don't see any consequences beyond that. If the judge says there are more bills to be paid then I will vote to pay them."
Pub Date: 12/20/96