The Carroll commissioners completed an eight-month overhaul of the county's ethics enforcement policies yesterday when they appointed a new six-member ethics commission.
The commissioners said they hope the panel will put to rest the contention that has surrounded the county's ethics policies for more than a year. The new panel features community activists, educators and people with investigatory backgrounds. Four members served on a task force that rewrote the county ethics code this spring.
"We hope that we've created a broad enough base with this group that people will have difficulty even questioning their motivations," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.
Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. added that he expects the panel to conduct its business "as fairly and quickly as possible."
The ethics commission fills a void created when the commissioners disbanded the old panel in February, accusing its members of conducting political "witch hunts" against several people, including Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. Because of vague language in the ethics policy, the county commissioners said, the panel was able to pursue such investigations with no public justification and with no end in sight.
The specter of the Gouge case lingers, even after a report from State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli cleared the commissioner of criminal wrongdoing last month. Montanarelli said some of Gouge's actions had the appearance of impropriety and that has caused some county residents to say the new panel should reopen the Gouge investigation.
Montanarelli investigated accusations that Gouge had influenced a price reduction on county-contracted work at her daughter's business. Gouge has said she mentioned to a county official that the price for the work seemed high and has apologized for doing so.
Contractor Charles Stambaugh, whose complaint to the old ethics panel spurred the investigation, has announced he will file another complaint with the new ethics commission.
The newly appointed members said they have not seen complaints about Gouge but will address them if they arrive.
"If we receive a complaint, we'll give it due process just as we will give any county employee due process," said Richard Simmons, who has managed the county's ethics enforcement for the past five months and will serve as the new panel's administrator.
Simmons said that based on his experience with the task force that rewrote the code, he expects the ethics commission to work quietly and efficiently.
"It's going to be business as usual," he said. "We're going to do business in very routine and systematic manner."
A former Carroll school administrator, Simmons has become the public face of the county's revamped ethics policy.
"Dick ... doesn't owe anybody anything, and nobody is going to dictate anything to him," said Minnich, who has said the county must keep politics out of the ethics enforcement process.
Besides Simmons, the ethics panel members are:
* Louis B. Scharon, a former county commissioner and former president of the county school board.
* Lisa Breslin, a Westminster community activist and free-lance writer who teaches writing at McDaniel College and managed Dr. Robert P. Wack's campaign for Democratic state delegate last year.
* Dolores Snyder, vice chairwoman of the board of trustees at McDaniel College.
* Charles Harrison, a Sykesville resident who spent 28 years working for the FBI and now runs a private investigation company.
* Judy Smith, a Union Bridge activist who has attended virtually every county meeting on the ethics policy over the past year.
The commissioners appointed Simmons and Harrison to three-year terms, Breslin and Snyder to two-year terms and Smith and Scharon to one-year terms. After the first series of terms are up, all members will be appointed to three-year terms.
The commissioners said they hope the new ethics code, which they approved this month, will make the panel's mission clear.
Simmons will handle the panel's routine business and will conduct investigations of ethics complaints but will not have a vote on those matters.
The new code includes a step-by-step explanation of how the ethics panel should conduct investigations.
Complaints will go to the ethics officer, who will decide whether they merit fuller investigation. The officer will conduct such investigations and present the results to the full panel, which has the power to censure, recommend firings or forward criminal actions to the state prosecutor. The old code included much less description of procedure.
The panel has set its first meeting for Friday morning. Simmons said he expects the panel to meet about once a month for now.