The Fayette County Board of Commissioners last week began to explore a major revision of its ethics ordinance.
But the first draft of the ordinance, authored by County Attorney Scott Bennett, eliminates the current provision for a potential fine of up to a $1,000 fine per ethics violation.
In another marked turn from current practice, the first draft does not include a provision for it to be considered an ethics violation if a commissioner or other official breaks any federal, or state law.
It is such a provision that allowed two citizens to successfully pursue ethics violation charges against sitting Commissioner Robert Horgan based on his arrest last year for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and driving with an expired tag.
The first draft of the ordinance would apply to county commissioners and any person appointed to a position either by the commissioners or by the county administrator, Bennett said. It also would apply to the county attorney and any person working for the county attorney’s office, he added.
The means the ordinance would cover volunteers who serve on the planning and zoning, recreation and water committees along with other boards or commissions established by the county commission.
In presenting the first draft of the ordinance to the commission last week, County Attorney Bennett noted that the language is far more specific about what constitutes an ethics violation compared to the current ordinance.
“It should specify what we think a violation is in detail and not have catch-all phrases that can mean different things to different people,” Bennett said.
The commission also discussed the possibility of establishing a pool of county volunteers to serve on an ethics board to investigate a complaint that a county commissioner or other appointed official had committed an ethical violation.
It was suggested that each commissioner could appoint two members to serve in a pool of eligible residents, and when necessary a board of perhaps three or five members could be drawn at random to serve as an ethics board when a complaint is received.
The ethics board should also have an attorney hired to assist them through the process so the board can be advised about rules involving the admission of evidence and the like, officials said.
Another suggestion was that if a commissioner was the subject of an ethics complaint, his or her appointees to the ethics pool would automatically be disqualified from serving on that particular ethics panel.
Currently, when an ethics complaint is filed against a commissioner, the county must acquire the services of three county attorneys from outside Fayette County to form an ethics panel to determine whether or not a violation occurred.
It was suggested that a citizen’s ethics panel could also be empowered to determine a penalty for violations, but for the penalty to be enforced the ethics board’s resolution must be adopted by the county commission, Bennett said.
“We can revise it to say the board of ethics does all of it … and can issue punishment. You can take the board of commissioners completely out of it,” Bennett said.