Staff reports to the Frederick City Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) regularly recommend a particular product or a particular contractor in apparent breach of government ethics laws. Often the Commission follows up on the staff report and makes a building permit dependent on use of a specified product of a particular manufacturer or contractor.
For example a recent approval (HPC14-201) for a 26ft by 20ft extension at the back of a townhouse on East 3rd St was conditioned on use of
- windows to be “1/1 Traditional Plus Primed Windows from Jeld Wen”
- a door from Simpson Door Company (Model 55)
- standing seam metal roof from Englar (misspelled) Company
In this case the Jeld Wen, Simpson Door and Englar (or Englert) companies clearly stand to benefit. They are guaranteed a sale by the act of a City official and a City commission if the project proceeds.
This practice of having City officers select vendors for HPC approved projects clearly suggests the possibility of corruption.
A lawyer directed us to “Prestige of Office” provisions in ethics laws.
Short of criminal bribery in which money, gifts or other material benefits are received by city officials in return for their locking applicants into purchase of their products, there are provisions in most ethics codes proscribing the use of “prestige of office” to benefit another person or business. That is, even short of bribery, city officials should not use their office to benefit a particular third party, a vendor.
Which is clearly what they are doing at the HPC.
At the US Government level the relevant ethics law states:
“An employee shall not use his public office … for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise.” 5CFR Ch XVI par2635.702 p579 (We guess the ‘his’ embraces both the sexes and applies equally to female staff – editor)
State and city code are both weaker than the US Government ethics law in that favors must be “intentional” to be unlawful.
But since historic preservation in Frederick makes use of federal grants for payment of some staff expenses it might be held that intent to favor is not necessary to prove misuse of prestige of office to be established.
City staff will claim that the applicants are choosing Jeld Wen, Simpson and Englar (or Englert) in their applications as filed. But those choices are heavily influenced by City staff in off-the-record consultations. Some otherwise obscure brands seem to come up with great frequency in applications and then in staff reports!
The Frederick Historic District Design Guidelines are the size of a book – 160 pages and 48,600 words – and full of obscurantist preservation jargon so most applicants rely heavily on city staff for guidance on what is permitable and what specialized products and contractors are likely to meet with official favor.
So establishing who is making the “choices” of companies products and contractors is not going to be simple.
But as long as City staff are flagrantly favoring particular vendors in their official reports to the HPC, and as long as the Commission itself endorses the practice, you have to suspect there’s something very rotten at the heart of “historic preservation” in Frederick – editor.