Commission modifies ethics rule; Brown still will appeal

Fayette County commissioners are no longer forbidden from making suggestions or “giving instructions” to department directors or employees.

That restriction was eliminated from the county’s ethics ordinance on a 4-0 vote of the commission at a special called meeting Jan. 29. It had been part of the county’s ethics ordinance after an update in November 2010.

Commission Chairman Steve Brown, who several weeks ago was found to have violated that exact section of the ordinance and has been accused of a second similar violation, removed himself from the meeting at its outset and did not participate in the discussion nor the vote.

While some county governments include such language forbidding commissioners from making orders to county employees, sometimes those regulations are deemed necessary to keep commissioners from taking actions that should be voted on by a majority of the board in a commission meeting, said Jim Grubiak who is the general counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Other counties don’t see the need for such restrictions, Grubiak observed, adding that it can depend on the type of government system in place in regards to the powers and authority of the county manager.

“Some counties are like ‘Heck yes, commissioners should be able to pick up the phone or tell a department head something they need when they see an issue,’” Grubiak said. “Others need things to go back to the board to make a decision as a group vote to have a majority and for those things to be more formal. … The perception of the right way to do it varies and can change over time depending on who is in office and what their wishes are.”

Prior to voting to remove the restrictions, Commissioner David Barlow noted that the ordinance as currently written would, for example, prevent him from being able to ask the county’s building and grounds department head, or even a janitor, from restocking the men’s room if it were out of toilet paper.

Should he choose to make such a comment, Barlow said, “anyone can cite me for an ethics violation,” an idea that Barlow said was “ridiculous.”

Instead, ethics ordinances should most importantly insure a commissioner doesn’t use his public office for personal gain, Barlow said.

“The ethics ordinance should not be a tool to force public officials away from serving as citizens,” Barlow said.

Commissioner Allen McCarty said the language in the ethics ordinance technically prevents him from getting any information such as a budget item.

“That would also be a violation of this ethics ordinance,” McCarty said. “So I am 100 percent with making the change.”

Commissioner Randy Ognio said he worried that even in meetings he made a suggestion to any county employee, he could be brought up on ethics charges as well.

“We’ve got to make it so we can communicate with department heads and have a working conversation,” Ognio said.

In his comments at last week’s meeting, Commission Vice Chairman Charles Oddo specifically referenced the ethics hearing from the complaint against Commission Chairman Steve Brown. On a 2-1 vote, the county’s three-member ethics board determined that Brown violated the ethics ordinance for issuing an order to the county’s human resources director to make an inquiry with the state attorney general’s office on the procedure for hiring a new county administrator.

“It was my feeling that ethics did not prevail last Wednesday,” Oddo said, adding that he did not intend to question the ethics board’s decision or cast aspersions on its members.

Nonetheless, there was no intent on Brown’s part to have any personal gain by making the order, Oddo noted.

“If a board could reverse its decision I wholeheartedly recommend the board reverse its decision of Jan. 23,” Oddo said.

Several citizens also spoke at the meeting and recommended the ethics board reverse its decision. Brown has already said he will appeal the determination.

Although this immediate change to the county’s ethics ordinance is considered a temporary Band-Aid, the commission is expected to tackle the regulations in future meetings for a comprehensive rewriting, a sentiment echoed by several commissioners last week.

Although the county advertised the special called meeting nearly a week in advance, the public had no advance notice of the specific changes to the ethics ordinance that were to be discussed.

The proposed changes were not posted in advance on the county’s website, a significant omission for a commission which has made a commitment to transparency in its actions, and given that new commissioners Ognio and Barlow were frequent critics in the past several years of a lack of transparency from the commission.

In advance of each regular meeting, the commission has typically published a detailed agenda with information on each agenda item.

Ognio said Monday that the information wasn’t posted on the website because the commission was waiting for the recommendation from the county attorney, which he didn’t see until the night of the meeting. Ognio said he would have preferred to have seen it further in advance as well, though he noted the commission’s wish to address changes to the entire ordinance in the future.

Barlow said had not thought about the lack of information being disseminated to the public in advance of the meeting, but it concerned him because he wants the commission to avoid even the appearance of doing something wrong.

Barlow agreed that had the roles been reversed he would have been critical of the commission for a lack of transparency by not releasing information on the proposed changes ahead of time.

Despite that, Barlow said he feels comfortable defending the decision the commission made in light of the situation faced with the ethics complaints made against Brown.

“What we did the other night I have no problem saying we were conducting the business of this county because of the absurdity and the looseness of the law,” Barlow said, referring back to the toilet paper analogy he made during the meeting.

Barlow said while he understood that some might be upset with the commission for not releasing the information ahead of time, he felt the matter needed to be dealt with quickly so he is comfortable in defending his decision to support removal of the language in question.