PTC Council may scrap citizen ethics committee

The Peachtree City Council will consider a big change to its ethics ordinance Thursday night. The new rules would ditch a committee of citizens sitting in judgment of all ethics complaints.

Instead, an attorney with at least five years experience whose law practice and residence are more than 10 miles outside the city would be selected to serve as the “hearing officer,” according to a staff memo distributed to council members.

The hearing officer will determine if complaints are founded and thus require a hearing, and he will also conduct the hearing and make any recommendations to council.

The mayor and council must take one of three actions based on the hearing officer’s recommendation, according to the memo from City Manager Jim Pennington:

• Accept the findings and recommendations of the hearing officer including disciplinary action;

• Accept the findings but reject the disciplinary action and instill its own discipline instead; or

• By a supermajority, reject the findings and recommendations in favor of either dismissal or conducting its own hearing.

If the ethics complaint was filed against the mayor or a council member, they must sit out from the decision on the hearing officer’s recommendation, according to the memo.

Anyone who is deemed to have violated the ethics ordinance would be subject to a public or private reprimand or censure, a request for resignation or removal from office. That removes one potential outcome available in the current ordinance for “recommendation of prosecution in city court.”

The new ordinance will be considered for approval by council Thursday night at 7 p.m. and is listed for approval on the consent agenda, which is reserved for non-controversial matters to be voted on as a group in the interest of expediency.

Under the current ethics ordinance, each council member appoints two citizens to the ethics board pool, and members are selected to serve on a specific instance when a complaint is actually filed.

By contrast this change would remove a bit of local control from the process, as residents would by ordinance be prevented from serving as the hearing officer even if they have the commensurate legal experience.

The hearing officer would be selected from a list of at least five qualified attorneys that would be maintained by the city clerk, who would randomly draw a name from that group and appoint the first one available to hear a particular ethics complaint.

The hearing officer is empowered to conduct an investigation and a hearing, but if a violation is deemed to have occurred may only recommend punishment, with the city council having the final say on the matter, according to the proposed ordinance. After that stage, either party can appeal the matter for reconsideration in Fayette County Superior Court.

Pennington in his memo about the proposed ordinance referred to the ethics complaint filed against former mayor Don Haddix in 2012 over Haddix’s use of city funds to pay for legal representation against a libel suit filed by previous mayor Harold Logsdon. City resident Steve Thaxton, who filed the complaint, dropped it before it could proceed to a hearing after Haddix declined a request to avoid city-funded legal representation at a future ethics hearing.

The process of handling that particular ethics complaint “revealed that local political involvement could lead to allegations of prejudice in deciding claims against an elected official,” Pennington wrote.

The proposal would completely replace the city’s current ethics ordinance and would apply to elected officials along with any full or part-time employee of the city or any of its independent contractors … even volunteers. All are grouped under the definition of “members” under the proposed ordinance.

One new wrinkle proposed would forbid ethics complaints from being filed on a sitting mayor or council member from the date qualifying starts at the end of their term through the date the election results are certified. This is to “discourage the filing of ethics complaints solely for political purposes,” according to the ordinance.

The proposed ethics ordinance also includes specific restrictions on accepting gifts, benefits or renumeration. Such could not be accepted if “it could reasonably be considered to influence the member in the future, and the member is involved in any official act or action which results in a pecuniary benefit for the donor which is not available to the public at large.”

The gift ban does not apply to “insignificant trinkets” such as a calendar, memento or pen for example as long as the value is less than $100, nor does it prevent “admission and consumption of food and beverages at a breakfast, lunch or dinner function or event.”

The ordinance also sets out that council members “shall not direct the activities of city staff, interfere with the day-to-day administrative functions of the city or the professional duties of the city staff, nor impair the ability of city staff to implement city council policy decisions.”

The new ordinance bans participation in any vote or decision on a matter affecting an immediate family member or if it would directly affect his or her private business.