Turner: Lack of “professional decorum” prompted effort
by Robin Kemp
The Clayton County Board of Ethics voted unanimously March 8 to send a letter to members of the Board of Commissioners, expressing its concern over repeated delays on a proposed BOC Code of Ethics.
The Board of Ethics also voted to send a resolution to the BOC “strongly [urging] to repeal” an ordinance the BOC passed September 17, 2019 that the Board of Ethics says violates its members’ First Amendment right to engage in political speech.
That ordinance, 2019-111, gives the Board of Ethics 30 days to review a ethics complaint or investigation, to do so in secret, and without considering any “additional documents, statements, testimonies or other evidence…as part of the closed meeting.” If the case has “no good and sufficient cause for determining that a violation exists,” the Board of Ethics “shall be precluded from providing findings and recommendations.”
Ethics Board Chairman Walter Nix said he and attorney Jim Elliott had discussed the code of conduct issue following recent coverage in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Clayton News.
Elliott said the Ethics Board was within its purview to comment on the proposed code of conduct for BOC members because it deals directly with matters of ethics within Clayton County.
The two bodies have been at war since the Ethics Board reprimanded the BOC over an alleged violation of Section 2-35-01(a) at its December 18, 2018 meeting. The BOC was voting on someone to fill the unexpired term of Dr. Alieka Anderson to the Development Authority. Franklin and Turner suggested Sandra Moses; Gregory, Hambrick, and then-Commissioner Edmondson voted it down. Edmondson made a motion, seconded by Hambrick, to appoint Dr. John Chaffin, which passed 3-2 with Franklin and Turner opposing. This meeting, Edmondson’s last as District 4 commissioner, lasted late into the night and dealt with the Mountain View and Old Dixie Overlay Districts, as well as other appointments to the Development Authority.
At the Ethics Board March 19, 2019 meeting, Chair Walter Nix said he was seeking more information from activist Robb Leatherwood, who had filed the complaint. At the April meeting, the Ethics Board found the BOC had violated a procedure requiring agenda items to be placed no later that the Wednesday before the meeting. On July 2, Ellis read a statement to the BOC that the Ethics Board had found Leatherwood’s allegations to be true, and that the Ethics Board recommended the BOC pass an amendment to make such violations actionable. In August 2019, the BOC responded with a resolution directing the city attorney to look into whether the Ethics Board had itself acted ethically. An outside investigator found that the Ethics Board had acted properly.
During recent meetings, some commissioners have directed personal attacks or remarks at members of the audience or at each other from the (virtual) dais. On previous occasions, some commissioners have complained about staff or department heads during the public meeting.
The proposed code of conduct ordinance reads in part, “All remarks should be directed to the chair and not to individual commissioners, staff, or citizens in attendance. Personal remarks are inappropriate.” This is in line with Robert’s Rules of Order, the go-to guide on parliamentary procedure widely used by elected and appointed bodies, as well as small clubs and student councils.
County code specifies the BOC chair, as presiding officer, ” is responsible for the orderly conduct of the meeting. In order to ensure a fair, orderly and efficient meeting, the chair must enforce the meeting procedures adopted by the board of commissioners. For any event not covered by these meeting procedures, Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised shall control.”
The Clayton Crescent asked each member of the Board of Commissioners to comment specifically on what incident or incidents prompted the proposed code of conduct, whether the BOC should govern itself through existing ordinances and Robert’s Rules of Order. Only Turner responded as of press time.
“I proposed the Code of Conduct for commissioners because on occasion some of our meetings have lacked professional decorum from or board, ” Turner told The Clayton Crescent. “So, I looked at best practices on the local, state and national levels to compose an ordinance for us. If we are going to hold our citizens accountable for their conduct during our meetings shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? Our local ordinances and Robert’s Rules of Order are more procedural and don’t address how commissioners should be disciplined should we be declared out of order or in violation of the ordinance. Some of the BOC members are always expressing the need to seek out best practices as examples for our county departments to follow, but it’s funny to me that when a best practice impacts our board, it goes out the window.”
The Clayton Crescent also asked each commissioner whether the code of conduct posed a gender issue, as the proponents are male and the opponents are female.
“I truly don’t believe that it’s a gender issue,” Turner said. “It’s my belief that some commissioners don’t want to be held accountable for their actions. As elected officials, we all should be held to a higher standard because we are the people’s representatives and by passing the Code of Conduct, it would have shown our citizens that we are serious about being held accountable.”
No commissioner seems willing to cite–at least not in public–specific instances in which colleagues allegedly have overstepped the bounds of decorum their office demands.
However, public discussions of the ordinance offer some insights as to why Turner thought a code of conduct necessary, as well as why other board members disagree with his opinion. Hambrick and Warner have expressed opposition to a BOC code of conduct, with Warner pointing to Robert’s Rules and Hambrick saying such a code would “box in” commissioners. Gregory has suggested tweaking language that could be interpreted as forbidding commissioners from calling in routine service requests.
A Brief Video History
December 22, 2020: Turner said he thought the ordinance “might be helpful for us to adopt” and that other jurisdictions had adopted codes of conduct. At Turner’s request, County Attorney Chuck Reed gave a presentation explaining the proposed ordinance in detail, referencing Henry, White, Camden, and Butts Counties. Reed said those codes of conduct governed commissioners’ behavior both in and outside of meetings and that Clayton’s proposed ordinance closely followed Butts County. Commissioners would be prohibited from making disparaging remarks about members of the public, county staff, or each other; refusing to sign any item that passed by a majority; discuss executive session items that posed actual or potential litigation. Outside of meetings, commissioners would be forbidden to order county employees to do tasks or threaten their jobs but would be allowed to inform a department head of an issue in need of attention (for example, an area needing trash pickup).
Gregory pointed out, “One person cannot demand that a director do this or that because we operate as a board.” Turner replied, “Yeah, I think everybody–well, the ones that’s on this call, or in the meeting, agrees with that, Commissioner Gregory,” adding that he and Reed would “tweak” the language for the board to take another look at it. Commissioners Hambrick and Franklin were absent that night.(At the next work session, Franklin said she’d had a family emergency and Hambrick said she’d had problems with her equipment.)
January 5, 2021: Turner placed the proposed code of conduct, Ordinance 2021-5, on the regular meeting consent agenda. Hambrick made a motion, which Gregory seconded, to hold it for further discussion at the January 12 work session. “We just discussed it at the last work session,” Turner said. “Well, you know I had equipment problems,” Hambrick replied, “so I didn’t get a chance to interact in that work session, in that meeting. I think this is serious. I saw one or two things that I couldn’t believe we even put that it writing.” Gregory seconded Hambrick’s motion. The BOC voted unanimously (5-0) to hold the item until then.
January 12, 2021: Reed gave another presentation on proposed language for the code of conduct ordinance. The new version removed a prohibition other counties had against speaking to reporters on behalf of the county or board without prior approval: “That was taken out, just based on our culture here,” Reed said. It also removed a prohibition against commissioners speaking directly to county employees, “based on comments that were made at the (December 22, 2020) meeting.”
Penalties could include verbal censure noted in the meeting minutes, written censure detailing “the facts underlying the violation” in the meeting minutes, kicking the offending commissioner off committees or other groups to which the BOC had appointed them, or a $500 fine payable to the General Fund within 10 days of the BOC’s vote to censure. If a commissioner refused to pay, the fine would be taken out of their paycheck.
“In the past, we had an unwritten rule for public comment, you know, that we didn’t try to solve the problems there,” Gregory said, “because we all give so much of our time like, meeting with people….I would just like to poll the board about how you feel about that because it’s so hard to correct a problem in public comment.” She added that department heads couldn’t always solve an issue on the spot.
Turner said, “I’m not sure what you’re asking in that respect, Commissioner Gregory. That we adopt a policy that says we’re not going to respond to citizens’ requests or questions?”
She replied, “Not responding at that time during public comment, but make it–of course, we’re all going to get with them, if they’re in our district or whatever or either we have already got with them. But just trying to resolve problems in public comment can lead to some of these, you know, conduct issues or whatever.”
Hambrick pointed out that Turner refers public commenters: “Sometimes he’ll say the chief will get with you, or the commissioner from that district will get with you. I like that better, too, than trying to answer or resolve the issue right then and there.”
Franklin noted it was hard not to interrupt over the Zoom call: “There’s no buzzer, there’s no means of how we’re supposed to ask for permission–just saying.”
Gregory said that citizens come to commissioners because they don’t know which staffers to go to.
Davis said, “We just want to be careful and cognizant that the constituents are not feeling like we’re not listening to them….we want to make sure that we’re very respectful and that we are listening to them,” adding that the board could direct speakers to the appropriate person for follow-up.
“Before I go to how I really feel about this,” Hambrick said, “I want to go to the penalties. There was something about taking me off of a board or taking me off an authority…I’m not clear on that. Also, on this $500. Is that legal?”
Reed said the ordinance empowered the board to police itself and that any vote on whether a member had violated the code of conduct would have to be taken in public, not in executive session. The vote on any penalty also would be public. A commissioner would have ten days to pay the fine or have it taken out of their check.
“Oh, really?” Hambrick said.
Reed said the BOC could set the amount of the fine and said the $500 figure “was not just picked out of random,” but had come from another jurisdiction’s code of conduct.
Turner said, “We looked at best practices from around the state and this is how we came up with this language for this code of conduct.”
Franlkin asked, “You said ‘we.’ Who came up with this again?”
Turner replied, “As you well know, any commissioner can bring up or request any kind of resolution, any kind of direction that they want to bring before the Board of Commissioners. I felt that it’s in our best interest, looking at best practices, a term you use quite often, to find a way that we can police ourselves, and I believe Commissioner Gregory said it best: We hold other folks accountable. It’s time to hold ourselves accountable….to make sure we’re conducting ourselves in a responsible and logical way.” He added that he had asked Reed to research other counties’ codes of conduct and present them to the board as a starting point.
Hambrick said commissioners already have training and written duties in place. “I’m not comfortable boxing myself into something that I may end up violating and all–not intentionally–but to put this in writing, I’m not comfortable doing that….for that to happen and all of a sudden you’re charging me $500, which you won’t get, ’cause I don’t have it. We have different ways. We have ethics boards and all this. So why all this policing? I want to be comfortable doing my job for the people.”
Turner said the code would help commissioners “know what the rules are, so you won’t be violating, so you won’t overstep boundaries–none of us–and that we’ll have a clear-cut direction as to how to conduct ourselves in and out of meetings.”
Franklin said she agreed with Hambrick and had done “some extensive research, and that other jurisdictions simply adopt the Robert’s Rules of Order.” (Clayton County code does cite Robert’s Rules as a guide to BOC conduct.)
Turner suggested dropping the $500 fine.
Davis pointed out that state senators have a code of conduct and chamber etiquette and asked why the BOC shouldn’t.
Hambrick asked whether it would be a violation for her to disagree with a colleague on the board.
Davis said the issue was not disagreement but how commissioners respond to disagreement. “For me to jump on you and start calling you names because we don’t agree, yeah, that’s an issue there, which I should be reprimanded for if I were to do something like that.”
Hambrick said the BOC should consider communicating amongst itself before imposing a code of conduct.
February 2, 2021: During public comment, Jonesboro resident Orlando Gooden said he had watched the January 12 work session on the code of conduct “and was surprised by the opposition of three commissioners. There is a code of conduct in Congress, House of Representatives, and the Senate. The statehouse and other counties have a code of conduct. So why doesn’t the Clayton County Board of Commissioners have one? When Commissioner (Michael) Edmondson was on the board, I asked about the code of conduct. Twice. I was told first, decorum. Then, Robert’s Rules of Order. It. is hypocritical that the clerk, before public comments, reads the rules of conduct that we have to adhere to, but you don’t. And the commissioner says she will refuse to pay the fine for violating any rules of conduct. Now I know the rules are for thee, and not for me. That’s how it works.”
February 16, 2020: Gooden again spoke about the proposed code of conduct during public comment: “Code of conduct was not on the February 2 agenda, and it’s not on the agenda today. How do you justify reading a code of conduct before public comments, and the penalties can be relinquish the podium, physical removal from the auditorium, or being banned from Board of Commissioners meetings? That is a double standard. The board should take a yes or no vote so we all know who should be held accountable for violating Robert’s Rules of Order or a lack of decorum. I heard the word ‘accountable’ used three times at the end of the last work session, and that just reeks of blatant hypocrisy. I’m not asking if a vote is acceptable. It should be mandatory.”
March 2, 2021: Commissioner Gail Hambrick asked to remove the item from that night’s agenda. Hambrick said she thought Chairman Jeff Turner should have told her it was going to be on the agenda beforehand.
Turner said, “I had it placed on the agenda because how can we hold the citizens accountable for their conduct when we’re not doing the same for our own conduct on this board? You know, we always talk about ‘best practices,’ but yet and still, when it impacts this board, I guess ‘best practices’ go out the window.”
Hambrick replied, “We discussed this in work session and I believe we had it on the agenda and took it off, and the fact that it was just put on, without mentioning it to me, anyway, knowing the objection, just to put it on there–well, to me, that’s lack of respect. Because maybe if we had discussed it and come up with some kind of resolution an all, that would have been okay, But to put the same thing back on there when. we opposed it, then I can only say that I have the same feeling.”
Turner said, “Commissioner, I removed it the first time, after first we have the work session, then it was placed–I think I took it off before it was even on the agenda….we tried to work through it, I see the urgency and the need to have a code of conduct, so just like you and any other commissioner who have placed things on the items on the agenda without sharing it with everybody else, but we did have a work session to discuss it. So it’s not being disingenuous in my opinion, it’s just something that I feel like needed to be done. But you are definitely within your rights, and the rest of the board, in which to remove it.”
Gregory seconded the motion. Hambrick, Gregory, and Franklin voted in favor of removing Ordinance 2021-51 from the agenda. Turner and Commissioner DeMont Davis voted against it.
During public comment, Gooden again brought up the proposed code of conduct: “Today, a vote on item number 10, Ordinance 2021-51, was necessary because it appears that this board has two chairmen and a commissioner who said, ‘I am not going to vote for it because I know I am going to break it.’ If it is not approved, then the clerk should stop reading. a code of conduct before public comments. Rules apply to everyone or to no one. There must be a ghost of [former District 4 Commissioner Michael] Edmonson because the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Timothy Vondell Jefferson said, “When Ordinance 2021-51 is taken off the agenda, about the code of conduct of a commissioner, it is critically important. I have never heard of a commissioner taking out a stalking TPO charge out on a former candidate that ran against her…So as we review the code of conduct, I think it needs to be implemented.” Jefferson said he was investigated for a month and a half and that the stress sent him to the hospital with chest pains. “We talk a lot about Black excellence,” Jefferson said. “This county is under Black leadership. We need to start bringing Black excellence to the citizens that have voted you guys into office.”
Gregory later asked for a point of privilege, saying she doesn’t believe everything she reads in the papers and that she’s been hounded by allegations of corruption for six years: “No extra money, no stealing money. You can ask Ms. (Ramona) Bivins. I haven’t got any (extra) money from the county. So I just want you all to keep that in mind. And as we move forward, when you talk about a code of conduct, the people elected us. If people don’t like how we’re conducting ourselves, elect us out. It’s just that simple. We don’t have to have these jobs and so forth. We’re doing it because of public service.”
Tonight’s 5:30 p.m. work session does not include any items on the proposed code of conduct.
Learn about Robert’s Rules of Order, including newly-developed guidelines for conducting electronic meetings.
See frequently asked questions about filing a complaint with the Clayton County Board of Ethics.