As Aberdeen's two mayoral candidates, incumbent Mike Bennett and challenger Patrick McGrady, near the end of their campaigns, Bennett received some unwanted criticism this week from the city's ethics commission.
With just six days until the voters have their say Tuesday, the ethics commission released a report Wednesday admonishing Bennett for actions he took during a trip to Augusta, Ga., last month at the behest of Ripken Baseball, the tenant at the city-owned Ripken Stadium.
McGrady had filed an official complaint with the commission about the trip.
The commission found Bennett "did not willfully violate" the city's Code of Ethics, but did fail to disclose a potential conflict in writing prior to the trip and did not "address the problem of the desired effect of economic gain for Ripken Baseball, a business entity with which the City of Aberdeen is closely affiliated."
Bennett, 63, a retired state trooper and state police administrator, who has been mayor since 2007, strongly disagreed with the report's conclusion.
"This has really got me upset," he said Wednesday afternoon, explaining the code of ethics is "black and white."
"They mixed and matched different parts," he said. "I think very clearly and without a doubt, that they misinterpreted it, and they mixed and matched questions."
Bennett passed along a letter he submitted in response to the ethics commission on Oct. 24, in which called the charges "inaccurate and unfounded."
In it, he noted none of his family members are involved with Ripken Baseball, and the company "is a tenant at Ripken Stadium and beyond that is not 'doing business' with the City of Aberdeen."
During a later interview in his office Wednesday afternoon, he said the ethics commission's conclusions would imply he could not cut the ribbon at ShopRite supermarket as mayor because it would imply he does not support another local supermarket.
"My family and I have served in this community for almost 50 years. We have been staunch members of the community. Aberdeen is first in our minds," he said. "It's just very frustrating to build up [a reputation for] a lifetime and then have something like this land on your name, which is total B.S."
Regarding McGrady, he said, "How do you build up a lifetime when you are 25?"
The members of the ethics commission – Maria Fothergill, Myra Fender, Marian de Rosset and Jesse Shanks – are appointed by the mayor; however, some are holdovers from previous city administrations.
In a written statement, McGrady, who works for his family's real estate development and property management company, said: "We must hold all of our elected officials to high standards of integrity. It is very unfortunate that Mayor Bennett did not follow the law, and for the sake of Aberdeen's future, I hope that his future behavior will be more ethical."
"Even more disappointing than the legal violations that took place is the fact that Mayor Bennett, during his Ripken-paid trip to Augusta, told the people of Augusta that the Ripken Stadium has been a good deal for the City," the statement continued. "The truth is that Aberdeen taxpayers lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and we need to get out from under that debt."
Bennett, accompanied by Ripken Baseball officials, flew to Georgia at the company's expense on Oct. 3. Ripken Baseball, which owns the Aberdeen IronBirds and Augusta GreenJackets minor league baseball teams, is trying to persuade Augusta city officials to build a new stadium.
According to published accounts and his own comments upon returning, Bennett spoke positively about the city's relationship with Ripken Baseball and the stadium, which has been a financial drain on the city since it opened 11 years ago. Bennett, who wasn't in city politics when the stadium was built, said he believed the financial issues are finally being worked out.
Campaign goes on
Talking about the campaign earlier in the day Wednesday, before the ethics commission notified McGrady of its findings, Bennett said he has spent the last three weekends walking around town and the campaigning has been going well.
"We have had a very, very positive response throughout the city," Bennett said, explaining he is "just taking care of business, as far as the city is concerned."