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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.



Last minute items added to the agenda without public notifcation? The new commissioners seem to be pushing this aside. Was this not one of the main focuses of thier campaign?

Not sure why the ethics vote was so so important it had to be addressed immedialty without the public being aware. Did they not want someone to attend?

Is transparency harder than you thought? Would have been better if one of the "Transparent" commissioners stood behind what they preached.

Robert W. Morgan's picture

Anybody think that might have something to do with the recently discarded ethics rule? Anybody want to bet against something like that happening now that the commissioners and the chairman have given themselves more power?

Live free or die!

Never thought of that. The commissioners only refer to benign issues.

Pretty sure these commissioners are only going to discuss innocuous statements or requests eith staff. Right? No one ever asks for favors do they?, lol

Jolly for PTC Mayor's picture

How sad is it, that when our elected officals are caught breaking the rules that they don't just admit fault and move on. But, they just want to change the rules after the fact.

Did anyone making cmts about this meeting actually read the Agenda Actions entry on the County Website to see what actually transpired at this meeting? Sure doesn't sound like it. I have no problem with how the meeting transpired and the eventual results (which the interim County Attorney said was about all they could do at this time). Pls go read about what happened and then criticize--if you still feel so inclined.

I believe Mr. Brown views himself as omnipotent and from the "board" room to the PTC dog park, he will continue to follow his own agenda irrespective of the views of the community.

All of our independent thinking commissioners failed to do their homework, again, before blindly following the chairman and voting at this "specially called meeting".

Least we not forget that Mr. Chairman, when mayor of PTC, asked an innocuous favor that sent an employee to deliver his child to camp, while he tended to important city business.

All these independent thinkers and not one did their homework or had the cajones to say, maybe this isn't a good idea, since one of us already has a history of asking for favors.

Barlow needs to do his homework and not waste his time playing county preacher.

Be nice if you two guys got your stories & historical facts in snyc!

NUK_1's picture

Though I've been accused of moments of potentially upcoming senility from my wife a few times, I think I got the Brown ethics case in PTC 100% :)

Yes, if we believe a post by Steve Brown on 06/01/2010 about the incident, your facts are accurate.

NUK_1's picture

It is more than just Brown's own words on what exactly happened as it was witnessed by a few City people, including one I would not say is a Brown supporter at all.

All of our independent thinking commissioners failed to do their homework, again, voting to give themselves additional power to go directly to county managers instead of going through the county administrator who act as a conduit. The chairman thought, let me call a special meeting so no one has time to think about this.

Least we not forget that Mr. Chairman, when mayor of PTC, asked an innocuous favor that sent an employee to deliver his child to camp, while he tended to important city business.

All these independent thinkers and not one did their homework or had the cajones to say, maybe this isn't a good idea, since Mr. Chairman, you have a history of asking for innocuous favors that aren't so simple as asking for additional tp in the men's room.

Barlow needs to do his homework and not waste his time playing county preacher.

NUK_1's picture

You campaign on high standards, you'd better be ready to back it up and sadly these guys have blown it twice. Criticizing those who you ran against and defeated for the same BS you've now done twice sort of falls into the hypocrisy category.

Brown COULD be a man and just let the 2 ethics convictions(without penalty, really) go and carry on, but he won't. He can't get out of his own way. Frankly, I am 100% certain he did in fact violate the ethics ordinance on one charge and it wasn't due to having a poorly written policy either, and the other was sort of weak. The third, blah. Nothing.

Also, in fairness to Brown, when he was PTC Mayor and broke the ethics ordinance there and ratted on himself actually, he wasn't the one who proposed having a city employee take his kids somewhere. That city employee herself went to Brown and volunteered to do it and he said "OK." Lapse of judgment on his part yes, but he never ordered that secretary to take his kid anywhere.

I am so busy in this part time job, I can't take my daughter to camp in time. Wo is me. Oh Mr. Mayor I will take precious. Maybe you will approve my raise next month.

Lapse of judgement? Perhaps.

Lack of homework by our independent thinking commissioners and silly minion. Absolutely.

Possible problems being created from this special meeting with a late agenda. Definetly.

Can't wait to see who is going to be paying for Mr. Browns fight. Better be coming out of his pocket and not mine.

Michael Mumper's picture

My concern here is not really about ethics - I do think our Commissioners are pretty good guys - it's more about governance. My personal experience is more in the nonprofit world, and an emerging management practice there is starting to also make its way into government. It's called the "Policy Governance" model. This model is concerned with creating the best and clearest relationship between a board, the CEO, and the staff. In our case, our county commissioners would be the "board", Steve Rapson (our County Administrator) would be the CEO or Executive Director, and other county employees would be the staff. The Policy Governance Model, I think, could be a lesson to us in how to ensure transparent, clear, accountable communications that promote the success of our county operations. One of the thought leaders in Policy Governance is a Canadian named John Carver. An article that appears on his website is here: It's not necessarily written in layman's terms, but a slow reading will tell the story.

The crux of the suggestion - if we decide this Policy Governance model is right for Fayette - would be to NOT allow Commissioners to give direction directly to county staff. The commissioners sole "subordinate" is the CEO, County Administrator Steve Rapson, and any commissioner requests should flow through him. Again, this suggestion is no reflection on current county commissioners, who I trust and respect. It's more of a process to ensure successful long-term communications no matter who's in office.

mudcat's picture

We have begun using the "Governance by Brown's latest whim" model - the same one he used as mayor of Peachtree City. Consider this -
The ethics ordinance says no meddling in day to day operations of county staff or even direct communication with staff members.
Brown sets a new record getting hit with an ethics violation during his first month as commission chair and is found guilty of meddling by contacting a staff member directly.
The rookie commissioners (at their own first rodeo with Brown) blindly follow his lead in not liking the ordinance, so they vote to change it to allow themselves and Brown to meddle.
Brown now has county commission support for his goal = unfettered access to county staff and the right to meddle without penalty.

Obvious prediction - Brown will clash with Rapson before the azaleas bloom. Anybody want to bet against that one?

ptctaxpayer's picture

B.R.A.W.N.= Brown, Rapson and Weed now....How soon they forget greatness.

Rapson and Brown will get along fine.

mudcat's picture

Hubby and the others called them BRAWT Wurst.

I actually had forgotten about that silly fraternity boy pledge or whatever it was. I have not forgotten the overall behavior of the entitled one.

Question: Aside from the County Clerk, is there any admin support designated to support theBoard of Commissioners? Or does a Commissioner say to the Chairman "Need some help" and then one Steve goes to the other Steve and asks for help? Regardless, I just can't see the Commissioners routinely skipping echelon and tasking county employees--just doesn't pass the common sense test.

Would you be approve if the previous commissioners made these changes?

Yep--because I don't think there needs to be any sort of legal barrier between the Board and other County employees--in other words I expect all of them to conduct themselves as logical, sensible, adults doing the business of all County citizens! You disagree?

mudcat's picture

I love you - I love you - no it is not that

Here they are - you said those 3 little words first:

logical, sensible, adults

I'm sure you meant well, but are you freakin serious about these people? logical, sensible, adults???? After suspending the ethics ordinance? Gimmme a break.

Didn't 'suspend' the Ordinance--simply modified it. Full review to come later (as also suggested by some Citizen comments). I guess you didn't vote for any of our current Commissioners, having zero faith and confidence in their honesty or ability to serve honorably. Remember, with the possible exception of one, they all had professions & successful careers before becoming commissioners. Of course you can continue to be a 'doubter' and professional critic or you can support them and make constructive recommendations and suggestions--I think you'll find them receptive. Oh, and pls include the County Manager in that group who is receptive to suggestions.

mudcat's picture

I have faith in them and Steve Rapson as well. I may develop faith in the others if they actually do something instead of rubber stamp the brown agenda - whatever that is - except for relentless self-promotion which I think everyone understands by now.

But I certainly do disagree. I do believe that we have honest commissioners. But eventually most politicians succumb to the ole mighty campaign contribution, dinner invitation, sports tickets, ect...

Their innocuous need for tp in the mens room turns into a pothole that needs filled on the way to work, or a favor for a friend. Maybe the employee servicing the commissioner wants something (raise, appointment to a committee) and begins to do a lot more than provide the census report in order to gain favor.

What would happen to the county employee who says no, forgets to take care of something, or believes the request is uncalled for or not appropriate? That persons may or may not be afraid to say no for fear of losing their job.

Having a conduit such as the county administrator provides additional checks and balances.

Just check out Gwinnett or DeKalb counties to look at the corruption that takes place once someone gets comfortable in their position.

By softening the procedure and not having to go through the county administrator, our commissioners may actually be placing themselves in harms way should they cross paths with an employee who doesn't agree with them and ambushes the commissioner with a political vendetta.

If you think it can't happen here, you're sadly mistaken.

Since we are removing a step in responsibility for the county administrator, then we should be requiring a he give back part of his salary. Doncha think?

Michael Mumper's picture

yup, first rodeo. Been in Fayette 5 years now, but just recently starting to get involved...feel free to set me straight when I miss the point on something.

Slight resemblance to PTC councilman George Dienhart. Doncha think?

Your right. Rapson just lost staff control to the Chairman and 3 newly minted commissioners who have no idea what they have just gotten themselves into. Pretty sure staff won't like it either.

My bet is that this will boil over sometime this summer when one of the commissioners goes behind Mr. Rapsons back with a request. Mr. Rapson will be kicking himself for leaving his old job.

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