Baltimore County inspector general reform commission issues interim report with no recommendations

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability is required to hand over final recommendations to the Baltimore County Council by Feb. 16.

Published on: January 20, 2023 7:02 PM EST|Updated on: January 20, 2023 8:51 PM EST

6/16/22—A sign reading “Baltimore County Maryland” hangs on the wall inside the historic Baltimore County Courthouse in Towson, the center of county government.
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A highly-anticipated interim report from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s inspector general reform commission that was made public Friday contains no recommendations about how to change the office.

In the 168-page report, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability — which Olszewski appointed to revise bylaws surrounding the county’s Office of the Inspector General — describes results from an “ethical climate survey” of some county employees administered by the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy. Baltimore County has a $100,000 contract with the Schaefer Center to provide “administrative support” to the commission.

According to the report, the commission solicited feedback from around 7,500 county employees and members of boards and commissions, including those required to file ethics disclosures.

Nearly 1,500 of those who were surveyed answered at least one question, according to the report. But none of the Schaefer Center’s questions garnered even a simple majority of answers from those who responded. Some respondents included “individuals who work in elected offices,” and 21% were employees of the Baltimore County Police Department, according to the report. The report included 300 words describing how and why some emailed surveys “bounced back.”

The Schaefer Center asked county employees and those who serve on local bodies to indicate whether they thought their managers and colleagues behaved unethically and their level of knowledge about the county’s ethics rules. Respondents were also asked to indicate their confidence in the Office of the Inspector General, the Office of the County Auditor and the ethics commission, and whether they ever felt threatened by members of the offices.

Asked why the report did not include details of any possible recommendations, Schaefer Center director Ann Cotten, who is identified as the commission’s “principal investigator,” said the commission chose not to provide “partial” recommendations. The commission was originally required to provide draft recommendations by July 2022.

Instead, the report rehashes the commission’s function and procedures, meeting schedules and individuals who were invited or allowed to speak at the public meetings, and dedicates 50 exhibits to statistics of respondents’ answers and their demographics.

“We’re proud of the actions we’ve taken and the progress we’ve made to cultivate a culture of transparent and open government in Baltimore County,” Olszewski said in a statement. “We’re thankful for the Commission’s ongoing work and look forward to reviewing their recommendations and final report.”

Tensions between Olszewski’s administration and the county’s first inspector general office, which is headed by former deputy state prosecutor Kelly Madigan, have simmered for years.

Olszewski — a Democrat who easily won a second term in November — launched the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability in October 2021 to recommend reforms to Madigan’s office, and appointed its 11 members. That executive order marked a shift in Olszewski’s strategy to reform the inspector general office after public backlash against Olszewski’s draft legislation (first reported by The Baltimore Brew) that would have established an oversight board and restricted Madigan’s access to government records.

The commission has faced similar scrutiny — despite barring the public from testifying during open meetings. In October, a county resident filed a complaint with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board, writing that the commission’s two subcommittees, which handle the bulk of the commission’s work, violated the open meetings law by meeting multiple times behind closed doors with county employees and officials.

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Those meetings included council chair Julian Jones and county administrative officer Stacy Rodgers, who have publicly sparred with Madigan. Jones has been the subject of two inspector general reports.

The compliance board said it couldn’t determine that the county had knowingly created the subcommittees in order to discuss matters privately, in violation of the Open Meetings Act. After The Baltimore Banner first reported the complaint, the commission reversed course and allowed public comment, which was overwhelmingly in support of providing the inspector general broad powers to investigate.

Commission members indicated during public meetings they do not support creating an oversight board. Discussion has also ensued about requiring the county’s IG to follow rules similar to the Maryland Public Information Act when seeking county records during investigations.

The Baltimore Banner sent a Public Information Act request Nov. 29 to the University of Baltimore to review emails exchanged between Cotten and Olszewski, and emails exchanged by the commission’s email address. The college had still not delivered the records by Friday.

The commission is scheduled to convene virtually Feb. 2. Subcommittees will revise “the edited recommendations” and, under executive order, must issue them to Olszewski and the County Council by Feb. 16.

The commission says the final report will also include “information that Commission members learned that was relevant to their decision making on the recommendations,” and will provide “information about how these recommendations were developed.”

The final report is meant to recommend legislative and non-legislative changes to Madigan’s office.