CAP Pushes Back on Ethics Panel Report

At the Tuesday, November 12 County Commissioners’ meeting, the county’s ad hoc Ethics Review Panel gave its report. The panel recommended no substantive changes to the existing Ethics Commission or Ethics Ordinance, and made those recommendations without any meaningful public input. In response, CAP Chair Kira Hamman spoke on behalf of the organization at the November 18 Commissioners’ meeting. What follows is a version of the comments made there that was sent as a letter to the editors of the Herald-Mail on November 25 but has yet to appear.

 

To the Editors:

We are writing on behalf of Citizens Above Partisanship, a nonpartisan political action committee focused on encouraging cooperative government in Washington County.

One of our organization’s key priorities is ethics in local government, and we are very concerned about the county’s existing Ethics Commission and Ethics Ordinance. Members of ethics commissions should never be under the authority of the same elected officials they are charged to investigate, as they currently are in Washington County. Furthermore, as recent incidents in county government illustrate, unethical actions do not always involve financial gain, yet that is all the current ordinance addresses. Finally, there is no mechanism currently in place to enforce penalties for ethics violations, and this lack of enforcement leads directly to a lack of accountability.

We were hopeful last year when Commissioners Meinelschmidt and Keefer chose to focus on these issues and appointed an ad hoc Ethics Review Panel to review and revise the county’s commission and ordinance. We were subsequently dismayed, following the commission’s November 12 meeting, that the panel’s report recommended no substantive changes to either the structure of the commission or the ordinance itself.

More concerningly, these recommendations were made with virtually no public input. The panel held one public hearing, on Tuesday, September 10. A small notice of the meeting appeared in the Herald-Mail at the end of the previous week. That’s it.

The hearing was not publicized via the County Commissioners’ email list. It did not appear on the county’s social media channels. No press release was sent out. And neither the hearing nor the minutes of other panel deliberations were, or are, mentioned on the county web site.

Unsurprisingly, nobody went.

Leaving aside how uncomfortably close this comes to a violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act, it is inconsistent with the principle of transparency in government that we hope and trust the Washington County Commissioners hold dear. Beyond that, even if the hearing had been well-publicized, it failed to garner any input. This should have automatically triggered additional hearings and attempts to collect feedback from the community. Ethics ordinances address the very integrity of our government and cannot meaningfully be discussed, let alone revised, without the participation of community stakeholders.

Therefore, we ask that the commissioners do the following:

    1. Re-convene an ad hoc Ethics Review Panel.
    2. Charge the panel to hold well-publicized meetings at a variety of locations around the county.
    3. Offer a well-publicized and robust option to give input online.
    4. Accept recommendations from the panel only after meaningful input from a diversity of stakeholders has been gathered, and no sooner than 90 days from the beginning of the process.
    5. Finally, make all deliberations public in the form of well-publicized open meetings with publicly available written minutes.

We ask that this process begin immediately.

Sincerely,

Citizens Above Partisanship Executive Committee

 

It is our understanding that the County Commissioners are now considering holding a new public forum to discuss the Ethics Commission and Ordinance. We encourage all CAP members and supporters to reach out to them in support of such a forum, and to attend it if and when it occurs. We will keep you up to date as we hear more.

Ethics Changes in Washington County

Last week’s vote by the County Commissioners to form an ad hoc committee to review the county’s ethics ordinance represents important progress on one of CAP’s top priorities. We fully support the Commission’s decision, and urge them to adopt changes that will strengthen the ordinance and give the Ethics Commission meaningful authority to enforce it.

Commissioner Cort Meinelschmidt discussed ethics changes in the county at CAP’s meeting on March 25 at the American Legion in Williamsport. You can watch that meeting here:

CAP Outlines 2019 Priorities

With the 2018 General Election behind us, Citizens Above Partisanship has outlined its priorities for 2019. In keeping with our mission to promote cooperative politics for the benefit of all Washington County residents, we have identified three main priorities for this year. These priorities all support our core value of ethics, education and the economy.

Priority 1: Diversity Among Local Elected Officials

One of CAP’s long-term priorities is to improve diversity among local elected officials. CAP endeavors to ensure that not only the most ethical and most qualified individuals serve in office, but also that elected officials are as diverse as the residents of the county. We will address this priority in 2019 by reaching out to members of traditionally underrepresented groups to identify issues of concern to those communities & how they fit in with CAP priorities. We will publicize and address those issues via speakers and topics at our meetings, social media outreach, and outreach at local meetings and events. Our intent is to be in a position to encourage and support a diverse and qualified pool of candidates for the 2020 election and beyond.

Priority 2: Ethics and Transparency in Local Government

A continuing CAP priority is to raise the ethical standards and transparency of local government. We strive for a culture of inclusion, competency, and trust. We must ensure that our elected officials treat everyone fairly and without bias and that there are clearly stated and enforced policies regarding ethics. We are concerned about the number of closed meetings and the lack of public review of some decisions, and in 2019 we will attend County Commissioner meetings, Board of Education meetings, and other municipal meetings to ensure that these issues are being tracked and the public made aware of them.

Priority 3: Economic Development and Education

Our third major priority for 2019 is to raise awareness of economic and educational issues in the county. A strong economy is crucial for any healthy, thriving community, as is an educated electorate. A community with low unemployment whose citizens are employed in quality jobs has lower rates of crime and illegal drug use. Education is closely tied to both economic success and a healthy, thriving community. In 2019 we will connect with local business and educational leaders about both the challenges they face and about positive trends, and bring those things to a larger audience through our meetings and our outreach efforts.

Democracy takes work. Let’s get to work.

Kickoff Celebrates Political Cooperation

Citizens Above Partisanship’s extremely successful Meet the Candidates Kickoff party at Bulls & Bears on Thursday, May 10 was concrete evidence that Washington County is ready for cooperative, nonpartisan government. The event was attended by four of the five candidates CAP is endorsing in the 2018 election and by more than 50 community members and supporters. Attendees enjoyed food, drink, and animated conversation about the future of Washington County. Overheard were discussions of education funding, tax policy, and economic development, as well as spirited debate about candidates for statewide office. These conversations were certainly energetic, but they were also mutually respectful, with an eye toward how to best serve the common good.

Each candidate addressed the crowd briefly, talking about their support for CAP’s mission of nonpartisan cooperation and about their individual campaign objectives. John Krowka, candidate for Board of Education, led off by talking about smart school spending, career readiness that doesn’t always involve a college degree, the need for community engagement, and the fact that “one size does not fit all” in education.

The crowd then heard from the candidates CAP is endorsing for County Commissioner. These candidates span the political spectrum, but while they spoke from different perspectives they voiced similar concerns. Donna Brightman asked the crowd to redirect the frustration they might be feeling about politics at the national level into meaningful action at the local level. Scott Bryan emphasized the importance of mutual trust between a community and its leaders. Cort Meinelschmidt talked about the need for a budget that meets the needs of all citizens, and praised Krowka for his emphasis on education that serves all students. Although Elizabeth Paul was unable to be at the Kickoff, a campaign representative spoke on her behalf about her commitment to ethical leadership and responsible governance.

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The breadth of support for CAP’s mission was further evident in the wide range of donations to the silent auction that took place at the Kickoff. From Fountain Head Country Club to Talon Studio Tattoo and with many, many others in between, small businesses all over the county clearly understand the necessity of cooperative government in Washington County. Other business donors included:

CAP is deeply grateful to all these businesses, as well as to the individual artists and collectors who also donated to the auction, and of course to everyone who came out to the Kickoff to support our candidates and our mission. Democracy takes work. It’s good to know that we can have fun at the same time!

 

Washington County’s Ethics Fail

It was with disappointment, if not surprise, that we read the findings of the county Ethics Commission released late last week.

Where to begin? With the leaking of a document clearly classified as confidential by the county’s own Harassment Policy? With the decision that said leak was not unethical because it was not for “private gain,” a caveat that is nowhere mentioned in the policy itself? Perhaps with the twin decision that misleading the public by selectively leaking incomplete information is also perfectly ethical, for the same reason. Maybe we should begin with the county’s Ethics Ordinance, which deals almost exclusively with financial disclosure. Or with the murky Ethics Commission itself, appointed by the very commissioners it was charged to investigate. Apparently the entirety of Washington County government believes that nothing is unethical unless it leads to personal financial gain. As they say, foll­­­­­ow the money.

In any case, clearly nobody wants to begin where it actually began, with the allegations of gross misconduct brought against Commissioner LeRoy Myers. Oh, a powerful man made unwanted sexual advances toward a subordinate woman? Yawn. Nothing unethical about that.

Aristotle conceived of ethical behavior as the “good action” which is necessary for living a virtuous life. Ethical judgements are complex. We get that. Nevertheless, by any measure save their own, the Board of County Commissioners is an ethical failure.

Citizens Above Partisanship’s statement of priorities calls ethical considerations “the highest, philosophical level of our democracy;” the one that guides all our other priorities. “Ethics are a manifestation of our common values and our commitment to shared humanity,” the statement goes on. The necessity of doing the difficult, messy work of making local government reflect those values and commitment has never been more evident.

We call on the Board of County Commissioners to establish a robust, confidential reporting structure for ethics violations and a meaningfully independent Ethics Commission to handle such reports. If the current Board is unable or unwilling to do so, then we call on them to step aside for candidates who will. Good government presupposes selfless commitment to a common good. If our current commissioners cannot concretely demonstrate that they have that commitment, then we will elect commissioners who can.