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As Long as We Remember...

January 20, 2014

Political Ethics Battles To The Forefront

Jill King

Prestige used to be a word that was derogatory. Before Napoleon it meant to deceive or trick. The ethics ordinance for Frederick County is based on the Latin origin, using the term prestige of office to define possible violations.


Recently, there have been numerous filings with the Frederick County Ethics Board. Prestige of office along with possible conflicts of interest has crossed the path of this commission; very few warranted action.


In order to file a complaint, there are guidelines clearly posted on the county’s website which tell who, what, and how the ordinance is used to protect the public.


In 2010, the county was tasked to adopt state mandated changes to the ethics laws, enacted most recently on November 17, 2011. One major item was the removal of fines, changing the offenses to misdemeanors.


Enforcing ethics codes by the state or county without real consequences seems kind of silly.


Why then are there so many frivolous complaints?


With the recent move to charter government, we are going to see why in the upcoming political race; it's political opinion.


Speculation and muckraking or disagreeing on political views absolutely does not call for a decision for the Ethics Commission just because someone doesn't like a specific government action.


The county executive race is heating up, based on the disagreement of how the county should be run.


Current Board of Commissioners’ policies under President Blaine Young have brought out the former leader of the board, Jan Gardner, to challenge for the newly formed position of county executive.


Former Commissioner Gardner has spent the down time of this four year term working for U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a career politician and a big government spender.


During her term as commissioner, there were usually enough votes to swing matters her way when developing an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, purchasing land and studying for a move to Waste-to-Energy, and decreases in the amount of land that can be developed by placing restrictions on private owners.


The Young Board defeated the land grab board by a sweeping majority, responding to the previous board’s decisions. All Republicans on the ballot won, four of them through an alliance to restore property rights, decrease taxes, and to reduce the size, scope, and cost of government. Commissioner David Gray was the only incumbent to win a seat.


Since then, the Ethics commission has been kept busy with potential conflicts of interest and any other who-ha the anti's can come up with. The non-profit group, Friends of Frederick County, which notoriously keeps the courts busy with any development materializing during the past three years, along with the changes from the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance to the current plan of Developmental Rights and Responsibilities agreement, has certainly brought them much ado about nothing.


Law is what it is and not a perception of a fringe group or that of the one that didn't get their way due to political beliefs, although it is looking more the opposite.


Which brings me to this...


Commissioner Gray, a 75-year-old, self employed accountant and a past ally of the anti-land development board, has now thrown his name into the mix. Commissioner Gray served as a commissioner from 1990-2002; he sat out a term before being re-elected in 2006.


His announcement at a public hearing for the Monrovia Town Center may have garnered him numerous votes. Ms. Gardner showed up to testify at that hearing as well. We will just have to wait and see.


His statement to not raise or spend more than $1,000 is ridiculous for such a position. Announced and potential candidates have raised much more, through exploratory committees and fundraising. Is this yet another Trojan horse by Mr. Gray who is well into retirement age?


The biggest question here is this: Did Commissioner Gray use his prestige of office to make an announcement at a public hearing? Does it fit the criteria identified by the Ethics Ordinance?


Section 1-7.1-5 Conflicts of Interest, section B identifies who. Moving on the section to 'G' which defines a prestige of office offense to be:

(1) An official or employee may not intentionally use the prestige of office or public position for the private gain of that official or employee or the private gain of another.


Do the sum of $95,000 a year, which is much more than his current $45,000, and a political office separate of his current status make the grade? The Frederick-News Post obviously didn't think so.


This paragraph (2) does not prohibit the performance of usual and customary constituent services by a county commissioner without additional compensation.


Was his announcement usual or customary constituent service? Only the board can decide.


Which leaves me to this...


It is tiresome to watch for ethics breaches and many go without any formal action. Will any of the usual suspects find it in their own moral code to go after someone with whom they agree? The punishment is only a slap on the wrist. Essentially, unless it is a big deal such as a criminal offense, who cares?


Each ethics board is changed out every three years by an appointment by the commissioners and can suit the Board's ideals in this manner.


The next election will be about the two camps – development and anti-development. Facts will get lost; reputations will be placed on the line; and, those paying the slightest bit of attention to the local races along with state and federal races will be outnumbered by the low information voter who only pays attention to the “D” or “R” after the name on the ballot.


Let the mudslinging begin. After all, it worked in favor of Donna Kuzemchak, right Phillip Dacey? Too bad we will never know who it really negatively impacted.


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