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No ethics action taken

March 22, 2006|From Staff reports

With Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II casting the deciding vote, the Hagerstown City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday night not to take any action against Councilwoman Alesia D. Parson-McBean after an ethics commission ruled that she violated the city's ethics code in January.

Council members Lewis C. Metzner and Kelly S. Cromer joined Bruchey in the majority opinion, saying the councilwoman already has been through enough with negative publicity she received in The Herald-Mail.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire and Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh voted against the motion not to take action.

Parson-McBean abstained from the vote upon the advice of City Attorney Mark K. Boyer.

"How much punishment can we do ... in comparison to three months of front-page headlines?" Metzner asked.

Parson-McBean criticized The Herald-Mail and argued that if the newspaper had published an apology she e-mailed to its office in February that no one would have thought any more of her actions.

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Parson-McBean issued a press release dated Feb. 9, 2006, but The Herald-Mail did not receive a copy that day.

After a television report of Parson-McBean's statement, The Herald-Mail asked Parson-McBean for a copy of the release.

An e-mailed version of the release was received at The Herald-Mail on Friday, Feb. 10, 2006, at 11:34:48 p.m., in the account of reporter Daniel J. Sernovitz. Sernovitz was not aware of the e-mail until he returned to work Monday, Feb. 13.

Sernovitz read the e-mail and intended to forward it to his editors, but never did so. He said he did not deliberately ignore the release.

Several council members said they felt much of the public criticism that Parson-McBean endured resulted not from her actions, but from the perception she never apologized for her actions.

"Had The Herald-Mail run the apology, things would have been much different," Cromer said. "Hindsight is 20-20, but I think this thing could have been put to rest a long time ago."

In an opinion made public last week, the Washington County Ethics Commission ruled Parson-McBean violated the city's ethics code by her actions following a traffic stop Jan. 20. Specifically, it said she used "the prestige of the Councilwoman's office to gain a benefit for herself that would not have been available to a member of the public."

Parson-McBean was stopped outside the Hagerstown Police Department on Burhans Boulevard for driving a vehicle with expired registration, police have said. According to the opinion, she jokingly asked the officer who stopped her, "Do you know who I am?" She also asked the officer how she would get to the Motor Vehicle Administration off Sharpsburg Pike to renew her registration.

The opinion stated that, even if she was joking, her words and actions prompted the officer to consult with Capt. Charles Summers, who then directed Lt. William C. Wright to drive Parson-McBean to the MVA, wait for her to renew her registration and drive her back to her vehicle at the police department. Former mayoral candidate Anthony T. Campello filed a complaint March 7 with the ethics commission.

Parson-McBean said she believes the ethics commission misconstrued her intentions and that she does not agree with the commission's opinion. She said that she wants the public to focus on the more positive things happening in the city and has offered to pay $120 to the Police Athletic League and the Memorial Recreation Center.

"Something that I said flippantly was turned into an ethical violation," she said. "I will never say what I did was unethical."

Parson-McBean said she was disappointed no one asked her about the incident, and felt Campello should have spoken with her before filing the ethics complaint. With the exception of Metzner, she extended her disappointment to members of the council.

"No one else gave me the courtesy of giving me a telephone call," she said.

Metzner said he felt the issue revolved around the perception rather than reality of impropriety, and that even if she said it jokingly, Parson-McBean should not have said "Do you know who I am?" to the officer that stopped her.

"It ends up this way, it ends up this way no matter what the context it's said in," he said, adding that he believes Parson-McBean "did not intend to violate ethics, but I also believe that the ethics commission is correct."

Aleshire said before the vote he believed Parson-McBean should instead make a donation to the police department to offset its cost in time and equipment in driving the councilwoman to the MVA. Nigh said before the vote that she believes funds should also go to the police department, which has several organizations it supports and would be in a better position to allocate the funds.

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