Reason for hope as the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics in Baltimore County concludes its work
Based on last night’s meeting, the commission will recommend steps to keep the Office of the Inspector General independent, with adequate staff and resources to do its job [Analysis]
Above: Members of the Blue Ribbon Commission meet with county officials at an earlier virtual hearing. (Webex)
The Baltimore County Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability was charged by County Executive Johnny Olszewski with making recommendations to “modernize” the county’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in accordance with “best practices” for such agencies.
The commission held a marathon meeting last night to try to reach agreement on the recommendations it will present to the county executive and county council.
Its final report is due on February 2.
Although it is too early to celebrate, it appears that the recommendations in the commission’s report, if adopted by the county, will secure the independence of the OIG and assure its effectiveness.
That would be an outcome that not everyone expected.
Indeed, it would be a remarkable turnaround from 18 months ago when the OIG was on the verge of being eviscerated by the county executive and the council.
A Rocky Start
The blue ribbon commission got off to a rocky start.
From its early meetings, a listener might have concluded that the biggest threat to county government was a rogue OIG frightening and bruising the feelings of county employees – not the pattern of fraud, waste and abuse that the tiny office had uncovered during its brief existence.
Some members even discussed adopting detailed (and unnecessary) procedural requirements that would hamstring investigations.
That first impression heightened the concerns of residents already suspicious of its pedigree.
Those concerns became more acute after a commission subcommittee agreed to hear the testimony of County Council Chairman Julian Jones, who has been openly hostile toward the OIG, in secret.
The commission was formed in the wake of an administration bill that would have crippled the office.
Olszewski had the bill drafted as part of what appears to have been a concerted attack on Inspector General Kelly Madigan and her office.
The attack began after Madigan rebuffed an attempt by Olszewski’s chief of staff to control the OIG’s access to county records in April 2021.
It continued with harsh personal criticism of Madigan by Jones and former Councilwoman Cathy Bevins during a budget hearing in May 2021.
In July 2021, The Brew discovered the existence of Olszewski’s bill and reported that Madigan denied Olszewski’s implication that she supported it.
Public outrage at the bill persuaded Olszewski not to introduce it. Instead, he created the commission by executive order in October 2021. Its seven members were handpicked by the county executive.
When the commission was announced, Councilmen Wade Kach and Todd Crandell, who have supported the OIG, expressed doubt that there was a problem that needed solving and questioned its real purpose.
That question will linger until the commission issues its final report but, despite its dubious pedigree and inauspicious start, the panel appears headed in the right direction.
Certain recommendations have been agreed to in principle, although the language of the recommendations has not been finally approved by the members.
The draft recommendations provide that:
• The independence of the OIG should be enshrined in the county charter along with explicit guarantees of an adequate staff and budget.
• There should be no advisory or oversight board for the OIG, a flat-out rejection of Olszewski’s earlier bill.
• The OIG’s unrestricted access to county records should continue.
(The IG would prefer direct access to emails, but the county’s head of IT explained that the IT system is centralized and security protocols limit access to specially vetted systems engineers. Commission members concurred that provisions should be added to the law mandating that those systems engineers keep the OIG’s requests confidential.)
• The OIG should not be required to notify an employee’s supervisor or agency head of an investigation into that employee’s conduct.
• An employee should not be reimbursed for the cost of bringing an attorney to an OIG interview.
• The IG should be allowed to retain outside legal counsel if she determines that obtaining assistance from the Office of Law poses a conflict of interest.
There was extended discussion last night on how the OIG handles investigation reports and responses.
The issue has not been finally resolved. But the members appeared to agree with Madigan that an employee whose conduct is a subject of an investigation should not be given an opportunity to review or rebut that report before it goes to the county officials responsible for deciding on any consequences for the conduct.
A number of administration officials participated in the meeting, including County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers and County Attorney James Benjamin.
Rodgers told the commission that the goal of the Olszewski administration is to make the OIG a “world-class operation.”
This is a far cry from the confrontational atmosphere that prevailed in the spring and summer of 2021.
There still is opportunity for backsliding by the commission when it finalizes its recommendations.
Certain members of the panel continue to nitpick and seem inclined to try to micromanage the OIG, a task for which they clearly lack expertise.
Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism, which I attribute to the local media for reporting on the struggle by the IG to protect her office and to public support for the IG that the media attention generated.
I also credit members of the commission who recognize that county residents want a strong and effective OIG, and that it is their job to make recommendations for achieving that goal.
Anything less by the commission will be judged a failure by the public and confirm the worst fears of those who questioned its real purpose.
• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @dplymyer.