Panel tackles ethics policy


The process of rebuilding the county's ethics enforcement system is moving forward as a new task force appointed to reimagine and rewrite the county ethics code has begun to meet.

Though the nine-member panel spent most of its first meeting Friday ironing out a schedule and voting procedures, newly appointed ethics officer Richard J. Simmons said he expects his group to deliver a more detailed, more credible ethics policy to the commissioners within three months. Simmons said he thinks the group can do that without reviving any of the contention that has swirled around county ethics law in the past year.

"Once it's in place, I don't expect it to be a big deal, to be honest with you," Simmons told the task force at the meeting.

Simmons said Friday that he envisions a system in which an administrator would handle day-to-day issues but would assign investigations to ad hoc panels. Such a setup would be similar to those in Howard and Harford counties and would approximate an idea the commissioners have floated for a reconfigured enforcement system.

Carroll is the lone county in Maryland currently using only one person to enforce its ethics code.

The commissioners say they want a simple conclusion to the reformation that began in early December, when newly elected Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. suspended the old ethics panel, calling its members incompetent, politically biased and devoid of credibility with Carroll residents.

The suspension cut off the panel's yearlong investigation of alleged ethics violations by Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. Because of the investigation, which led to an ongoing criminal investigation of Gouge by the state prosecutor's office, the county's ethics policies became an issue during last year's commissioner race.

The winning slate of Jones, Minnich and Gouge campaigned on the idea that the old panel had run amok with sprawling investigations of its political enemies. They promised a change and wasted no time. In February, the commissioners announced they would replace the commission with a single ethics officer who would administer the existing code and supervise the creation of a new code.

Two weeks ago, they appointed Simmons, a retired school administrator with little history of political activism in the county, to do the job. Last week, they appointed the eight-member task force that will help him draft a new policy.

Task force members said they would probably borrow from several ethics codes around the state in rewriting Carroll's policy. None spoke of the controversy surrounding the old ethics panel and none offered preconceived notions of what Carroll's new policy should look like.

Most said they were striving for simple language, detailed explanations of procedure and nonpartisanship.

"We have a unique opportunity to clean it up and make it simple," said Dolores Snyder, a committee member who serves as vice chair of McDaniel College's board of trustees.

"When a dispute arises, there must be procedures for giving clear due process," added Simmons. "I think that's where we really need to get something in place."

Others said the county must do a better job of explaining its ethics policies to Carroll residents. For example, they said few people seem to know that the policy leads to only two or three investigations a year and is mostly geared toward documenting the outside financial interests and employment of county workers and elected officials.

The task force will start rewriting the ethics policy at its next meeting, at 7:30 a.m. Thursday. The group will discuss the merits of having a single administrator enforce the ethics code vs. the merits of having a commission police it.

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