By: Chase Cook, Capital Gazette reporter
A former city planning director violated Annapolis’ ethics law — and the city is partly to blame, as proper training could have prevented the incident, according to an Ethics Commission report.
The report, dated Feb. 26, found that former Planning and Zoning Director Jon Arason violated the ethics law when he assisted the Crystal Spring developers after he left office in January 2014.
During a July 15, 2015, work session, Arason was introduced by proponents of the development “as part of the team,” according to the commission’s report. Arason had worked as planning director since 1996 and was fired when Mayor Mike Pantelides took office.
Crystal Spring would be a more than $200 million development along Forest Drive. It would be one of the largest developments in city history, featuring assisted-living senior housing, residential units, a hotel and retail space.
The ethics law bars a former city employee from leaving office and representing another group in a matter in which he “significantly participated as an official or employee.” Arason violated this provision, the commission’s report says.
Arason didn’t deny supporting the developers. He testified that he thought he was complying with the ethics law by waiting a year before doing so, and was unaware the law had changed shortly before he left office.
Once notified of the ethics complaint — filed on July 27, 2015, by environmental activist and former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad — Arason immediately ceased working with the Crystal Spring developers.
Arason was not sanctioned for the violation. The commission stated that Arason was “lax in not reviewing that law” but the violation “was not willful and he did not profit from it.”
Arason told the commission he didn’t receive any updated ethics training or exit interview when he left office. City officials say Arason did get an exit interview, but admitted the ethics law wasn’t discussed.
Because of this, the commission laid some of the blame at the city’s feet.
“Mr. Arason testified there was no effort by the city to educate him regarding the post-employment limitations of the ethics law,” the commission wrote in its report.
“Likewise, the three city employee witnesses indicated no such training was provided, testifying that until they became aware of this complaint they had no knowledge of the limitations.”
“The city, in conjunction with the Ethics Commission, needs to train its employees regarding the ethics law.”
Winegrad opposes the Crystal Spring development, but said his ethics complaint wasn’t about the merits of the project and he didn’t have any “personal” animosity toward Arason.
He said he wanted to make sure the city’s ethics laws were being followed.
“Can you imagine if you got a speeding ticket and you went before the judge and your only excuse was ‘I didn’t know’?” Winegrad said. “Ignorance of the law is no defense.”
Crystal Spring’s developers told both the Ethics Commission and The Capital that Arason was not compensated for his work.
“He offered to help, but we did not engage him for services, he did not bill us and we did not pay him,” said Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the developers.
When asked about the commission’s comments on ethics training, city officials admitted such training had stopped, although a date or reason wasn’t given.
They said new Web-based ethics training has been in the works for in the past year. It that would be provided to incoming employees and those leaving office.
As the city works to complete the new training program, city employees have been given copies of the ethics law, said Rhonda Wardlaw, a city spokeswoman.
Mayor Mike Pantelides thought that given Arason’s time in public service, he should have known better.
“He was a planning director for a long time and should have known the rules,” Pantelides said. “I don’t think the city is responsible for that at all.”