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June 5, 2015

The Death of an Ethics Commission

Joe Charlebois

On May 18th three members of the Frederick County Ethics Commission resigned in reaction to a letter from Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D) and County Council President Bud Otis (R). The letter public challenged the commission’s integrity, capabilities and thrust them into a political firestorm. Ms. Gardner and Mr. Otis were wrong.

In a written public response to the Ethics Commission Opinion 15-01, the county executive and council president wrote: “As county leaders who ran for office on a pledge to ensure open and honest government as well as restore trust in government, we are compelled to share our strong disagreement with this flawed decision and our lack of confidence in the ethics commission.”

Based on the way that the commission was attacked, three of the five members of the Ethics Commission felt obligated to resign. They felt that they could no longer act independently from the pressure put on them by political forces. They were Commissioners Carl Benna, C. Steven Snow and Chairwoman Gwen K. Romack.

Ms. Gardner and Mr. Otis’ admonition of their “flawed decision” and their “lack of confidence” in the commission has seriously undercut any hope that the current Ethics Commission could ever issue future opinions that would or could be trusted. The letter, as well as Ms. Gardner’s executive order forbidding any county official from bidding on and contracting with the county on any project, was seen as a total dismissal of their diligent, careful and well thought-out conclusion to Opinion 15-01.

Realistically the county executive’s decision to dismiss the commission’s opinion was a political one. It currently affects only one member of the council – Councilman Kirby Delauter (R). It is no secret that the county executive and the councilman have a history of animosity toward each other. In flexing her executive muscle, Ms. Gardner’s act to punish her political enemy will have far reaching consequences.

As a candidate and elected official, Ms. Gardner has put a tremendous focus on making Frederick County a transparent, trustworthy and ethical. Despite the creation of an ethics task force, her actions as Frederick County’s first executive make all that focus on transparency, trust and ethics seem like nothing more than empty rhetoric.

Immediately upon taking office, she improperly demoted the county’s budget officer Regina Williams. It was a move that that was seen as an attack on former County Commissioners’ President Blaine Young, whom she defeated in last year’s contentious election. Ms. Williams – formerly Howell – was the romantic interest of Mr. Young while he was separated from his wife. Ms. Gardner’s abuse of her office with this vindictive action not only cost Frederick County a valued employee, but it cost taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars in a legal settlement to make her mistake go away.

Ms. Gardner has now turned her attention to former commissioner and current County Councilman Delauter with the intent of ruining him financially. As a commissioner, Mr. Delauter won several times the right to bid on county contracts. Ms. Gardner instigated several of the complaints to the Ethics Commission which came to naught as Mr. Delauter won on every count. The commissioner form of government allowed the board to act as both the legislative and executive branches.

With the change to a charter form of government, the newly elected councilman went to the Frederick County Ethics Commission to verify if the change to a charter form of government would change previous ethics rulings in regards to his company being able to bid on county contracts. He reasoned that now that charter government has been installed and the county’s executive and legislative powers have been separated, there may be a change in their opinion.

It was this change in structure that the Ethics Commission used to determine that there was no impropriety in allowing a councilman or close relative to bid on county projects. The commission points to the fact that there are inherent checks and balances that avoid undue influence; council members don’t have any interaction in the approval of the sealed bids; the executive branch controls the direct bidding process and the executive branch ultimately approves the contract.

(Editor’s Note: The Ethics Commission considers only the content of the county’s Ethics Code is making its determinations.”

The Ethics Commission, which worked diligently to craft their opinion, lost three able and apolitical volunteers due to unwarranted influence from the county executive and council president.  Despite Ms. Gardner’s claim that she has done nothing to interfere with their work, the pressure she put upon the commission to come up with the “correct opinion” is the height of interference.

Mr. Otis, who thanked the three resigning members for their service, put additional pressure on the remaining and future commission members by finishing his remarks with thank you “for stepping aside in the interests of the people.” The insinuation, of course, is that those who resigned were in the way of progress.

By questioning the competency and character of the Ethics Commission, the county executive and council president will nearly assure that future committees will be little more than a rubber stamp for whichever party is in power at the county level.

Frederick County deserves better. It needs to have a committee that can act independently without interference from county leaders.


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