Race now part of dispute roiling Fayette Commission

Citizens question county ethics appointees; Commission urged to ‘redo’ process, seek and interview applicants

The Fayette County Commission was admonished by a handful of local residents Thursday night for not seeking volunteers for the county’s ethics board through an advertisement process.

The end result was a lack of transparency, several citizens argued, because the commission didn’t make the public at large aware of the need for volunteers for the ethics board or seek applicants in a bid to select the best-qualified person.

Instead, the commission handled the process just as it has for all its volunteer vacancies: by having individual commissioners nominate candidates to be voted on by the entire five-member county commission.

Commissioner Lee Hearn, who spoke to The Citizen after the meeting, noted that he finds it beneficial when selecting volunteers to have knowledge of that person’s character in addition to any specific expertise he or she might be able to list on a résumé.

That was not the opinion of the residents who addressed the commission at its regular meeting Thursday night. Several speakers asked the commission to start the process over completely so citizens could be ensured that the best ethics board candidates are chosen; no such action was taken although the board voted unanimously to advertise several other volunteer openings that currently exist with the county.

The underlying tone of the conversation is that some residents are upset that the two black members of the ethics board were relegated to alternate roles despite professional work histories that appear to make them highly qualified to serve as full-fledged ethics board members.

Race to some degree plays a role in the pending ethics complaint before the ethics board, as County Attorney Scott Bennett is being accused of soliciting a lawsuit to force the adoption of a new five-district map for county commission seats in May. The new map was approved in February but was not voted upon by the legislature, so without that lawsuit, Fayette County would have been required to use its previous three-district map.

Wayne Kendall, an attorney who formerly represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has taken strong issue with Bennett on the matter and now is representing two Fayette residents: Judith and Richard Moore in the ethics complaint. Judith Moore formerly served as the Democrat representative on the Fayette County Elections Board, chosen to that position by the county Democratic party.

The NAACP is also suing the county in a separate legal action seeking to force district voting for all seats on the county commission and board of education, which will limit Fayette voters to selecting just one member of each board based on which district they live in; currently all Fayette voters can weigh in at the polls on all five seats on both the county commission and board of education. The NAACP argues district voting is necessary so black residents in the county can elect the candidate of their choice.

The separate ethics complaint filed by Kendall alleges Bennett approved the payment of attorney’s fees to Lindsey stemming from the federal five-district map lawsuit totaling $3,850; Bennett said he was required to do so by a court order that he could not disobey.

On Oct. 11, Bennett told the county commission that he was confident he had conducted himself appropriately and he looked forward to getting the matter resolved by the ethics board.

County resident Dawn Oparah said Thursday that she was asked by Commissioner Steve Brown to identify candidates for the ethics board, and her nominees had no affiliation with the NAACP, so they would not have a conflict of interest in serving on the ethics board.

By not seeking applications and interviewing candidates, the county commission’s current system of choosing volunteers for various boards “reeks of cronyism and the good old boy system that is alive and well,” Oparah said.

Since the commission often looks to volunteers whom individual commissioners are familiar with, they are missing out on strong candidates who may be “outside their circle,” Oparah noted.

Arnold Martin, who chairs the Fayette County Democratic Committee, said the commission’s current selection process, without requiring a résumé of each volunteer candidate, allows for volunteers to be selected based on familiarity, which leads to “political partisanism and a lack of demographic diversity.”

Although all five members of the commission are registered with the Fayette County Republican Party, Commissioner Steve Brown proposed naming Democrat Party secretary Pota Coston to one of the three ethics board seats. Instead, Coston was selected for an alternate’s position on the board of ethics. Coston was an unsuccessful candidate in the most recent Tyrone Town Council election.

Coston, like fellow alternate Larris Marks, is black and the three full-fledged members of the ethics board are white: Brooks Mayor Dan Langford, private attorney Sheila Huddleston (who ran against Commissioner Hearn in the July election) and Peachtree City financial advisor Scott Rowland. Rowland is a former candidate for mayor of Peachtree City.

Langford, Huddleston and Rowland were appointed on 3-2 votes with commissioners Herb Frady, Lee Hearn and Robert Horgan voting in favor and commissioners Allen McCarty and Steve Brown voting against.

Coston is a former criminal investigator for the Internal Revenue Service and Marks is a retired human resources director for the U.S. Army Forces Command. Both received unanimous approval to serve as alternates on the ethics board.

The ethics board plans to meet Wednesday, Nov. 28 to make its determination on the complaint. The board will be empowered to take one of six options:

• No admonishment and no further action;

• A public reprimand and admonishment not to violate the ethics code in the future;

• A formal reprimand;

• Public censure;

• Recommendation for termination, resignation or recall; or

• Recommendation for prosecution in the State Court of Fayette County.

The board can also decide to “admonish, formally reprimand, publicly censure” any complaining party who files a petition determined to be “unjustified, frivolous, patently unfounded or factually insufficient.”

While the commission took no action Thursday to dissolve the current members of the ethics board, commissioners voted unanimously to advertise through press releases several volunteer opportunities that are currently available with the county on several different boards.