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Thurmont ethics panel not used

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

The Town of Thurmont's Ethics Commission has not yet been asked to review the matter of town Commissioner Wayne Hooper's overdue utility bills, despite having the authority to do so, the town's attorney said Tuesday.

In fact, the commission has not been used in many years, according to Ethics Commission board member John Ford.

Mayor Martin A. Burns said he could not recall a time when the board was used, but that it definitely hadn't been used since at least 1999.

The commission has the responsibility "to provide written advisory opinions" to those persons affected by the town's ethics code and "process and make determinations as to complaints filed by any person alleging violations."

In June, town attorney N. Lynn Board of Board and Borden in Frederick was asked by the Board of Commissioners to investigate whether Hooper used the prestige of his office to avoid having his unpaid utilities shut off. In her report to the town commissioners dated July 26, Board found no wrongdoing by Hooper and said he did not request special treatment.

Hooper was almost $3,000 behind in his water, sewer and electric bills when he paid them off at the end of June after the investigation began.

The report did determine, however, that Hooper benefited from mistakes made in the town office that permitted his electricity to stay connected while other residents who were behind on their bills had their electricity shut off.

In the closing of the report, she advised town commissioners to use the Ethics Commission for any further questions.

"The Ethics Commission has the authority to make determinations whether members of the Board of Commissioners have violated the provisions of" the ethics ordinance, she wrote.

The town is continuing work on updating its charter and code, work that was started more than a year before the issue with Hooper's utilities came up.

Board said that during the investigation she did not look into Hooper's actions or his votes on any issues regarding the utilities to determine if he may have benefited from those decisions. That was beyond the scope of her investigation, she said.

Ford said the Ethics Commission has not yet been asked to consider any of the questions related to Hooper's utility bills. He said he would make phone calls to let other Ethics Commission members know that they could be called into service soon.

The town's code specifies what actions the commission is responsible for and what actions are "unlawful" for town commissioners and others covered under the code of ethics.

Under the code, it is unlawful for a commissioner to "participate on behalf of the town in any matter which would, to his knowledge, have a direct financial impact on him, his spouse or dependent child" or "...use the prestige of his office or position for his own benefit or that of another."

The latter mandate was the primary question posed to the town attorney.

Burns said he sent the investigation to the town's attorney instead of the Ethics Commission because he felt it should be reviewed in an unbiased way. Sending it to the Ethics Commission would have looked like a "witch hunt," he said.

"I think the Board of Commissioners can decide without going to the Ethics Commission," Burns said.

The bottom line was that there were some inconsistencies with the way the town handled the "issue regarding a commissioner" but the town has identified the weaknesses, which included a breakdown in the administration of the town, he said.

"I can't believe there was a breakdown with the administration of the town. Anyone dealing with a commissioner should know they should be dealt with like anyone else," Burns said. "They should know that. The important thing is the town found the problem, is fixing it and is moving on."

Burns said he was not concerned about the fact that the town code requires the Ethics Commission to "conduct public information programs regarding the purposes and application" of the ethics portion of the code.

No such information sessions are held, and the Ethics Commission is not listed on the town's Web site, www.thurmont.com, with the other commissions.

Burns said he thinks all of that is unnecessary.

"Residents are responsible for knowing the charter," Burns said. "If someone wants to know something all they have to do is ask. I think it's self-explanatory. If someone thinks something is unethical, they write a letter and it would go to the Ethics Commission."

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