Category Archives: Ethics Issues

Ethics issues with WIND and SOLAR problems

County leaders take up ethics law amendments

6 recommendations made but 3 of them not embraced

By Richard Crumbacker   Crisfield-Somerset County Times – July 15, 2015

PRINCESS ANNE — The reporting of gifts valued at $20 or more by all county employees and the expansion of who is a “qualified relative” under the Somerset County ethics ordinance are two changes recommended by the Ethics Commission that received a cool reception from the County Commissioners.

A third asks that the financial disclosure requirement be extended on a limited basis not only to members of the Ethics Commission but the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. “This may not be an immediate need,” said Ethics Commission Chairman Piet deWitt, but “certain boards and commissions have important functions… and the public needs to know who the people are.”

The appointed ethics board endorsed these and three other amendments to the local ordinance that came about during its inquiry into conflict of interest claims by Safe for Somerset as wind turbine regulations were being drafted. Mr. deWitt presented the recommendations to elected leaders during their July 7 work session, and future consideration now rests with them.

The first change rewrites a financial disclosure section to state that within 30 days from receipt of a gift of $20 or more “from any person that contracts with or is regulated by the County,” appointed officials and employees “notify the Ethics Commission” with the name of the gift giver, when the gift was received and its approximate value.

“That would be done on a single page form,” Mr. deWitt said, and be much like what the County Commissioners already fill out. “The people who receive the gift would not be required to fill out an entire financial disclosure form, simply that one page and report it to the Ethics Commission,” he explained.

Likewise, a county employee or board appointee who is employed elsewhere must disclose that to the Ethics Commission so any conflict of interest or “potential conflict” is known to the public.

Commissioner Craig Mathies Sr. said there are many county employees that are not in a position to make decisions or enact policy. While he had no problem with a disclosure of gifts if the person is a public official, director or supervisor, it goes too far to include “regular county employees” such as a transfer station attendant who may be tipped for helping someone dispose of their trash.

 

Ethics board seeks to expand financial disclosure mandate

Would add the zoning board of appeals and planning commission
(see the CC Meeting Agenda for 7/7/15 by clicking here)

By Richard Crumbacker  Crisfield-Somerset County Times – July 1, 2015

PRINCESS ANNE — Members of the Somerset County Ethics Commission unanimously recommended that not only they complete a financial disclosure form but it be extended as a requirement to serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals.

That recommendation, along with others, were approved during the ethics board’s meeting last Wednesday and forwarded to the County Commissioners for their consideration.

“This one may raise some eyebrows,” said Piet deWitt, chairman of the five member ethics panel. He said the planning commission in particular “ has a big job” entertaining proposals to determine what’s right and wrong for the county, “and the people need to know who sits there.”

During the drafting of a wind energy ordinance members of Safe for Somerset formally complained about planning commission members who had family that held leases with Pioneer Green, the wind developer that has since abandoned its plans in the county. Now this advisory board is discussing amendments to poultry house regulations, and at least one member, Glenn Ains, lives on a chicken farm.

During a work session May 21 Mr. deWitt met with the planning commission and advised members to be aware of conflicts of interest, and if unsure of their standing, to ask the Ethics Commission for guidance. “It’s possible that somebody could decide that if you raise chickens you shouldn’t be sitting on the Planning and Zoning Board discussing chicken houses,” Mr. deWitt said, but he was not going to give his singular off-the- cuff opinion during that forum.

“I do believe there is some concern about the boards,” Mr. deWitt said, adding, “if there isn’t, there should be, and the public has the right to know who is holding up their interests.” The financial disclosure form recommendation is ultimately decided by the County Commissioners, “ which may refuse (it),” he said.

The County Commissioners and others have said previously it’s very difficult to find residents willing to serve on boards and commissions and requiring a financial disclosure form could further limit the pool. Mr. deWitt said he is “ well aware” of that concern, but “We’re not talking about every commission, or every board,” and numerically, “it’s not a huge number of people.” In addition to the seven planning board members, there are five regular and one alternate member on the BZA.

Safe for Somerset member Tammy Truitt told Ethics Commission members that she is concerned about the directors on the Somerset County Economic Development Commission, and their disclosure requirements. She said projects it reviews could benefit family members. Likewise Kathryn Washburn inquired if the EDC’s executive director is subject to a financial disclosure statement.

While it was not immediately known what the requirements were for this quasi-governmental body, ethics board attorney Kirk Simpkins said if the Ethics Commission wants to include the EDC it should adopt that recommendation for the County Commissioners to consider.

A work session with the County Commissioners is set for July 7. Other issues to be discussed include recommendations that employees and county leaders file a disclosure form upon receipt of a gift associated with his or her official capacity, that “qualified relative” in the financial disclosure form be clarified to be the same as “immediate family” as defined in the county ordinance, and add a question on the financial disclosure form about any property in Somerset County where a qualified relative resides or owns.

On that last point Mr. deWitt said those who are required to complete the financial disclosure form “must be proactive” to accurately fill it out. “The ‘I don’t know’ answer can’t be an acceptable answer,” he said. “ You have to make some effort” to find out. During the wind turbine debate planning commission member Kevin Anderson was not certain if his sister’s husband had a land lease with Pioneer Green, which Safe for Somerset pointed out in its complaint.

“What we got was basically ‘I don’t communicate with my relatives’,” Mr. deWitt said when the complaint was investigated. “Well, sorry, but in this case you’re in a position where you accepted this responsibility, and with it comes a responsibility to find it out.”

 

County leaders cool to some ethics code changes

Tightens ‘qualified relative’ section to include in-laws; expands disclosure form

By Richard Crumbacker Crisfield-Somerset County Times

May 20, 2015

PRINCESS ANNE — A tightening of the ethics code governing Somerset County’s elected and appointed officials in addition to employees is under consideration by the County Commissioners.

The recommendations formulated in March and April by the Ethics Commission arose during its investigation into allegations by Safe for Somerset of business interests involving family members of county representatives with the now-abandoned Great Bay Wind Energy Center.

The five member appointed board agreed unanimously there were no conflicts of interest, but along the way called for a broadening of the definition of a “qualified relative” whose financial position would be required to be disclosed. It also endorsed the elimination of a salary threshold and instead recommends “all appointed officials and employees” file a financial disclosure form.

A “qualified relative” in the ordinance means a spouse, parent, child or sibling. The Ethics Commission seeks to include “and the spouse of a parent, child or sibling.” As Commissioner President Randy Laird pointed out, “this is dealing with in-laws,” which for Commissioner Jerry Boston hits close to home. “I know a lot of this is directed at me,” Mr. Boston said. While his son-in-law Douglas Reynolds was involved with a land-lease with wind turbine developer Pioneer Green, Mr. Boston said his direct relationship is only with his daughter Ashley. “I have no true bearing over him, he married my daughter,” adding that the Ethics Commission in its probe “didn’t find anything wrong with it.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Boston said  “I’ll go along with whatever everybody else wants to do,” but he personally thought it was “too much.”

If the change is made, the financial disclosure form will also need to be amended to include a schedule denoting “the spouse of a parent, child(ren) or sibling(s).” Commissioner Craig Mathies Sr. said if the ethics board is specifically seeking financial disclosure forms from a spouse or children, “that’s ludicrous.”

Another change even less popular involved the expansion of the financial disclosure mandate onto “all appointed officials and employees.” Currently this is limited to those drawing a salary of $110,000 or more and no one meets that threshold.

Managing this would be unwieldy, said County Administrator Doug Taylor. “I think that’s a little drastic,” he explained. “It would be an administrative nightmare to have every employee in county government file a financial disclosure form.” Perhaps decision-makers should comply, he suggested, as an alternative.

More financial disclosure endorsed by ethics board

County Commissioners asked to redefine ‘qualified relative’

By Richard Crumbacker Crisfield-Somerset County Times April 15, 2015

PRINCESS ANNE — The County Commissioners are now considering recommendations by the Somerset County Ethics Commission that would expand who submits a financial disclosure form and broadens what it means to be a “qualified relative” subject to the requirements of the ethics ordinance.

In its report that cleared certain elected and appointed officials of conflict of interest charges as alleged by Safe for Somerset, the ethics panel concluded, “more should be done to ensure compliance and engender confidence and integrity in governmental officials and employees.”

For example, there is currently no requirement that appointed officials or employees complete a financial disclosure form unless the salary is $110,000 or more. There are no county employees that fall within this definition. The recommendation is that “All county employees and officials should be required to disclose these matters, regardless of their compensation.”

Also endorsed is adding to the “qualified relative” definition of spouse, parent, child or sibling to include “and the spouse of a parent, child or sibling.” The complaint by Safe for Somerset cited in-laws as being leaseholders with Pioneer Green, the former wind developer. It was because of the company’s interest in Somerset County that planning board members were working on a wind turbine ordinance.

It is requested that the financial disclosure forms seek information about not only about the employee and spouse but the spouse’s parents, children or siblings.

“There are several changes, such as potential financial disclosure for all appointed officials and employees, changes in definitions of qualified relatives, and terminology regarding direct financial interest in anything with the county,” said Doug Taylor, county administrator.

“The Ethics Commission did a tremendous amount of work on this,” and Mr. Taylor urged the commissioners to study the findings for a future discussion.

Later in the meeting Mr. Taylor asked for nominees for the Social Services board, and Commissioner President Randy Laird said, “It’s going to be harder when they have to fill out a financial [disclosure] form.”

“ You ain’t gonna find nobody,” replied Vice President Charles Fisher.

Ethics board pressing on

County leaders ending work on industrial wind energy law doesn’t stop inquiry

By Richard Crumbacker Crisfield-Somerset County Times – April 1, 2015

PRINCESS ANNE — There may be no further action taken on an industrial wind energy ordinance, but that didn’t stop the Somerset County Ethics Commission from continuing its investigation into a complaint from Safe for Somerset about alleged leasehold relationships between appointed and elected leaders and wind developer Pioneer Green.

One of Safe’s spokesmen, Harvey Kagan, voiced his support that the board “carry forward” with its inquiry especially now that Pioneer Green is interested in solar energy.

“These same people are to be involved,” he said, and “the same kind of questions are likely to come up.” Mr. Kagan added that “Maybe the exact word of the law may not have been violated,” but he urged the board look at the relationships as someone in the public perceives it.

The Princess Anne resident said an analysis of the family, business and friendship relations will “lay a lot of this to rest.” “ You’re setting a precedent for finishing out the job.”

Another Safe member, Ross Christman of Marion, said “Favoritism has been shown to business associates (and) relatives, and it has held this county down to the lowest per capita income in the state, for years.” He said by example the County Commissioners wrote the nepotism ordinance “and appoint a brother as a county attorney. [It] just doesn’t fly to the appearance of propriety.”

That reference was regarding county attorney Kirk Simpkins and his brother Commissioner Rex Simpkins, although Rex Simpkins did not vote on the appointment.

Mr. Christman continued, “If a qualified relative’s spouse is on the lease, it’s the same as having the relative on the lease unless they’re doing something on the side the spouse doesn’t know about.”

Last Wednesday, Ethics Commission Chair Piet deWitt entertained public comment before going into closed session to continue the board’s work. In response to a question about the release of a letter it received, he said, “There’s a lot of paper in front of us right now,” and it may become public after a decision is rendered.

The next meeting date had not been selected in time for this edition.

Ethics Ruling – Somerset County Ethics Commission – 3/30/2015

The Ethics Commission sent Safe For Somerset their ruling of the complaints filed by Safe For Somerset in December 2014 and January 2015.  This ruling can be viewed below and is also located in the LEGAL area of SOMERSET CO that is on the Menu.

Ethics Commission Ruling of March 30, 2015 – Part 1

Ethics Commission Ruling of March 30, 2015 – Part 2

Ethics board still mulling complaint

Safe for Somerset alleges relations between officials a way to void draft wind bill

By Richard Crumbacker

Crisfield-Somerset County Times March 25, 2015

PRINCESS ANNE — The Somerset County Ethics Commission continues to work in closed session with its attorney Chris Mason to respond to questions raised by Safe for Somerset about possible conflicts of interest by elected and appointed county leaders. The allegation is that their relatives and/or business associates may have land leases through Pioneer Green Energy, and therefore be an influence on the writing of an ordinance governing the placement of wind turbines.

After less than five minutes of open session last Wednesday, Chairman Piet deWitt called for the meeting to be closed “to discuss some privileged information that will help us make a decision on the complaint at hand.”

“The board has not made findings at this point,” he said. “We’re still gathering information,” and members would receive a confidential update from Mr. Mason.

Safe member Ron DeClement of Princess Anne reminded the commission that “There were two zoning board members” voting on the ordinance “that had both business and family” and possibly social relations with leaseholders, so they were potentially “not acting on the public good because it was wrong in principle.”

“I don’t know what the actual ethics code will say, but what we’re saying is if it was brought before the public, the public would see a conflict of interest there for sure,” Mr. DeClement said. He also asked the board to consider the plight of two Planning and Zoning Commission members, Dr. Mary Fleury and Tammy Truitt, “ who were forced off the board” but Mr. DeWitt said that was something he didn’t think the Ethics Commission had jurisdiction over.

Mr. DeClement said family, business “and undoubtedly social relationships and friendships” influence the drafting of an ordinance, and “that would make the ordinance invalid.”

“It was crafted by people working for their friends and associates,” he said.

During their brief open session, however, Mr. deWitt recommended and received unanimous approval to add to the financial disclosure forms a question requesting the names and addresses of “qualified relatives” who live or own property in Somerset County. “Qualified Relative” as cited in the ethics ordinance is a “spouse, parent, child or sibling.”

With that information, “That becomes enough for a person inquiring to find it in the public record,” Mr. Mason said. “I think that’s as far as you can take it without getting into an issue of legitimate privacy concerns.”

Mr. deWitt also said the commission is required to hold a public information session and to go over what the ethics ordinance says, the commission’s role, and how it affects officials and employees.

Conflict-of-interest report heads to ethics panel

Credit:  Deborah Gates, DelmarvaNow | March 12, 2015 | www.delmarvanow.com ~~

An independent attorney plans to report next week on whether it is a conflict of interest to weigh in on legislative measures likely to have a direct impact on an extended family member or business associate.

Chris Mason of Salisbury is reviewing participation by Somerset County decision-makers involved in a process to decide on proposed industrial wind turbines in the county.

Critics say members of the Somerset Planning and Zoning Commission ignored expert opinions on health or safety risks and pushed through zoning recommendations that benefit relatives or business associates leasing land to a wind firm for the project.

The firm, Pioneer Green, proposes a wind farm of an initial 25 or more turbines across southwestern Somerset County. The project has drawn criticisms over, among other things, turbine height and distance to neighboring properties.

Also at issue is whether Somerset County Commissioners with family or business ties to turbine leaseholders should be involved in the decision process. County Commissioners also appoint members of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Safe For Somerset, a grass-roots group that formed to challenge aspects of the controversial wind project, requested in January that the Somerset Ethics Commission investigate potential conflicts.

Kirk Simpkins, for instance, is an in-law to a leaseholder, and Mason said the solicitor excused himself from conducting the factual investigation because of a potential conflict.

Mason expects to present an initial when the Ethics Commission meets Wednesday.

“There were multiple claims, and I want to get to the bottom of the issue to see if there is a conflict of interest,” Mason said. “I will present my findings to the ethics commission, and they will make a decision.”

Commentaries: DR. RANDY GEORGE – A plea the ethics board can help restore trust

February 4, 2015   Crisfield Somerset County Times

Dr. Randy George of Marion Station presented the following remarks Feb. 11 to the Somerset County Ethics Commission as it begins to review financial disclosure forms submitted by the County Commissioners.
                                                                    * * *

“I have been very troubled by what’s going on with regards to this wind ordinance. The underlying reason, I think, why you’re here today is that wind ordinance.

“The drafting of an ordinance was commissioned by the County Commissioners to the Planning and Zoning Commission, and I think this whole discussion centers around the prestige of office, around the use of that.  And that’s the underlying theme that I hear through it all.

“ You are at some disadvantage, because you were not, like many of us, sitting through these long Planning and Zoning Commission meetings.  Maybe that’s an advantage.  But we do have, and the county does have audio/visual records of every bit of it, it’s out there.

“When Pioneer Green, we all know who that is, came into the county, it had very clear requirements. It was never vague about those requirements for what it had to have in order to be here.  It needed to plant a series of turbines in an agricultural-residential area, because we are closely tied geographically to each other that didn’t leave a lot of area.  People live quite close to each other even though it’s an agricultural region.

“Pioneer Green wanted to place these turbines 700 feet away from people. They finally conceded that it would be a 1,000 feet, otherwise they would have to walk. The height had to be a certain height, and if it were to be restricted, they would have to walk. If the sound were not allowed to be too loud, they would have to walk, they required it to be in the range of airports and train sound levels permitted by the state of Maryland, otherwise they would not stay.

“This company had paid for its own impact study for the county, and there’s never been another one done. This impact study in general states there’s no problem with the turbines being here. In general our county regulations allow buildings, industries, activities, that allow industry to come into the county,  but to also to protect the people and the process.  It has to be a balanced procedure.  And in this particular case, having to do with this particular wind turbine process, many of us believe that was not done.

“The Planning and Zoning Commission required, depended upon and listened to Pioneer Green for guidance about how this turbine ordinance was to be drawn up.  There were two commissioners, one was the head of the commission, Dr. Mary Fleury, and another one Tammy Truitt, who actually has a family member who stood to gain by the presence of turbines, who raised flags about this particular process, showing that there was risk, risk having to do with sound, health, property values, and both of these ladies presented volumes of information to the commission from other places, from other studies, showing that there were risks, and even how to mitigate those risks simply by placing turbines farther away from people as had been done elsewhere.  It’s called setback, the distance between people and the turbine.

“Mr. Pusey,  Mr. Porter,  Mr. Taylor,  all presented alternative wording to this ordinance to try to make it easier for the commission to arrive at a balance. They even presented other ordinances from other areas to use as models.  All of these presentations, and you must look to the record since you weren’t there, were publicly dismissed, ignored, voted down.

“We think if you had been there you would have been disappointed with the process. Maybe embarrassed, maybe appalled.

“The final draft followed the Pioneer Green script.  With that it was logical for those of us who were watching it, and there were many, to question what was going on here.  What led to such a lopsided result, favoring a commercial interest, and apparently disallowing safety interest for the community?

“Because of that, several of us went into the public record, to try and see if there were some kind of conflict of interest.  Well, we were looking for relationships between the leaseholders, the landholders who would be getting money from Pioneer Green, and our county officials. These findings, which are really preliminary since the search is ongoing, were presented in a letter that you have now, that was sent on Jan. 9. And I won’t go through that. We’re sorry that this has come to this point. Very sorry. We’re sorry that you even have to be here. We’re glad you are.

“If you should find, this is our plea, that there has been any tainting of that ordinance that was being drawn up, any corruption of it, by any confl ict of interest, by any apparent conflict of interest, we request that you disallow that ordinance, that you just scrap it, that you advise that it be scrapped at the very least. And the reason is because trust in this local government has been lost to some extent of late. And by your actions, you are able to restore it to some extent. I thank you.”

Ethics board releases financial disclosure forms

Questionnaires completed by County Commissioners now available to the public

By Richard Crumbacker
Crisfield-Somerset County Times, February 25, 2015

PRINCESS ANNE — The Somerset County Ethics Commission is satisfied with the financial disclosure forms recently completed by the County Commissioners, and they are now available for public view at the county office.

The next step is to start the investigation requested by Safe for Somerset on possible conflicts of interest between County Commissioners and family members who are said to have leases with wind turbine developer Pioneer Green Energy.  The ethics board asked its attorney to start this process, and will meet again 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 4.

“There are all sorts of relationships discussed in the complaint,” said board Chairman Piet deWitt,  “and I’d like to make sure that those relationships…are truly relationships that we need to discuss.” “We need to verify that.”

Safe has asked about Commissioner Jerry Boston and his son-in-law Douglas Reynolds who is alleged to have a property lease with Pioneer Green.  In addition, county attorney Kirk Simpkins — who recused himself as the ethics board attorney — is the son-in-law of Scott Tawes who is purported to be a leaseholder as well.  Kirk Simpkins is the brother of Commissioner Rex Simpkins.

The forms — like the county’s ethics ordinance — are however silent on in-law relationships and when information for “Immediate Family” is requested that includes only “A spouse and dependent children.” A quick look at Mr. Boston’s form for example shows that except for his wife’s employer How Sweet It Is making sales to some county departments, there are no ties of any kind to wind turbine developers.

Attorney Chris Mason said he could ask for more details if he has questions, however,  the commissioners are “not under any obligation” to comply just based on his request.

“If they tell me ‘to go fly a kite’, I think I’ve got to get my string and my kite ready, because I don’t really have any ability to do much else,” he said, unless the ethics board votes “to have the court effectively take some sort of action.”

“We may need to discuss, if they will, the nature of the lease interest, if at all,” Mr. Mason said, adding that he doubts this is presently public information. “Some may be more than happy to discuss it, some may not.”

After he goes through this inquiry, he will issue a report. “I certainly can tell you what my investigation brings forward, and if documents are available, produce documents.”

At last Wednesday’s Ethics Commission meeting, Mr. Mason said he would like at least two weeks to work on this, and wrap it up quickly. “It’s too important to the people of the county to have this issue fester,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an issue we can sit on”

Jim Sharf of Shelltown said not only should County Commissioners be required to complete financial disclosure forms but representatives on boards and commissions should as well. And, he said, these documents should be reviewed ahead of any issue to be discussed. Even those who don’t vote, can help shape an opinion and compromise the process.

Mr. Sharf said disclosure forms are required of appointed commission and board members in both Wicomico and Worcester counties.  He recommended that all boards including the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals complete these forms, and once those are complete restart the planning process.

“It should begin anew,” he said. “If such a conflict of interest in your opinion exists, that person, that member should be recused from joining in any subsequent discussions.”

“ You’ve been brought into an ‘after the fact’ thankless job,” said Mr. Sharf to the five member board.