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Thurmont Ethics Commission convenes for Hooper inquiry

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

(10/21/04) Thurmont's Ethics Commission met Friday to consider a request by town resident John Ashbury to investigate the matter of overdue utility bills of town Commissioner Wayne Hooper.

Ashbury submitted the request in late August.

Hooper's water, sewer and electric utilities reached a combined total of about $3,000 before they were paid in late June. His utilities were not turned off, but other residents with lesser bills had their electricity turned off. Hooper's bills were paid after going nearly a full year with no payment.

A July report by the town's attorney investigating Hooper's water, sewer and electric bills determined Hooper did not ask for favors, but did benefit from what was essentially labeled an administrative snafu. Hooper is the town commission's liaison to the electric utility.

Ashbury said he asked the Ethics Commission to consider the issue because the Town of Thurmont pays town attorney Debra S. Borden of Board and Borden, LLC of Frederick, which he contends presents a conflict of interest for the attorney. He also wants the matter considered beyond just Hooper's actions.

The Ethics Commission didn't begin its work until last week because the commission wasn't fully staffed until two weeks ago.

At the meeting Friday, new commission member Melissa Oland was unanimously elected chairperson for the commission. Oland worked as an investigator in the Frederick County Sheriff's Office and as a lie-detector technician for many years.

Oland and fellow commissioners Dawn Hawes and John Ford then dug their heels into developing policies and procedures for the commission, using a draft prepared by Ford. Discussion centered on how and when investigations would be conducted.

The board referred frequently to the town's code on the Ethics Commission. The three members, who are appointed for as long as they are willing to serve, labored intensely over some issues and skimmed through others.

Ashbury, who attended the meeting, questioned some of the commission's policies. One policy which most troubled Ashbury dealt with the fact that state law prohibits the release of any names in the commission's final report, according to town attorney Borden.

He questioned how residents could have any confidence in a decision if they don't know what was done and to whom.

"That law really ruins the idea of having an ethics commission," he said.

While the person filing the complaint is not supposed to reveal the name of those being investigated, there is no penalty for doing so, Borden said.

Another topic was whether the commission should have subpoena power, requiring people to appear for questioning in an investigation.

Borden said most ethics commissions have subpoena power, but Thurmont's commission does not. However, that is something that can be changed in the Thurmont code, she said.

Regardless of whether or not the commission has subpoena power, however, the commission is still an investigative body. A town employee can be required to appear or be questioned but residents cannot, she said.

Following the meeting, the board convened for a closed session to begin the Hooper inquiry.

At about the time Ashbury's complaint was filed, The Gazette reported that the town's Ethics Commission was not conducting public information sessions, as is required in the town code, and the town's Web site did not include information for the commission, despite listing other commissions. The town's Web site ­ www.thurmont.com - now includes information on the Ethics Commission's purpose and lists the names of its members.

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