Proposed move would replace AWOL city Ethics Board
UPDATE 4:47 p.m.: ADDS comments from GFAF’s Sarah Brewerton-Palmer
by Robin Kemp
The Forest Park City Council will consider a proposal at tonight’s meeting to replace the city’s appointed Ethics Board with a single outside attorney.
The council voted last July to amend the city’s Ethics Ordinance, giving each councilmember one appointee to serve on the board.
However, according to the agenda for today’s meeting, that board has not met since its members were appointed.
City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper said, “We arranged training for the Ethics Board and only had two members attend. We called for an ethics board meeting, which was open to the public for August 17, 2021, and only have [sic] one member show up. We have ethics complaint[s] pending and need to move them forward. The agenda item is just a recommendation and as City Manager I am asking council to provide me with direction on how these ethic matters should be addressed.”
A check of the city’s published minutes on Forest Park’s website showed no agenda posted for August 17:
Meanwhile, ethics complaints sit unheard in Forest Park.
Cooper said, “It is my understanding we currently have three ethics complaints pending, with one I think being over a year old possibly and another just recently filed.”
City code requires ethics cases to be heard within 60 days of filing, with the board’s decision to be sent to the mayor and council within 7 days. However, the Ethics Board’s failure to meet those deadlines does not invalidate the complaint. Any decision the Ethics Board makes can be appealed to Clayton County Superior Court.
Who is on the Ethics Board?
The Ethics Board and its members are not listed alongside other appointed boards on the city’s Government webpage:
A check of the city’s published minutes shows Dr. Jill Morris is a member of the Ethics Board who was nominated by Councilwoman James in District 1 on Jan. 22, 2019. Councilwoman Latresa Wells seconded Morris’ appointment, which passed. When two seats came open on the board, Morris was again nominated by Councilman Allan Mears in District 5 on July 20, 2020. At that same meeting, James nominated Anthoney Simon.
Who is the Forest Park Ethics Board?
According to Cooper, the current board includes:
- Anthoney Simon (nominated by Councilwoman Kimberly James): no information found in City Council minutes, other than his nomination and appointment
- Joann Barbie (nominated by Councilman Dabouze Antoine): no information found in City Council minutes
- Ralph Nobles (nominated by Councilman Hector Gutierrez): no information found in City Council minutes
- Gregory Haynes (nominated by Councilwoman Latresa Wells): On April 2, 2018, Haynes commended the council for listening to public comments and suggested the city open its recreations centers to the city’s youth. Haynes was appointed to the Ethics Board on January 16, 2018–the day that Mayor Angelyne Butler and Councilman Hector Gutierrez took office, and the day the City Council removed the previous Ethics Board and installed Haynes, Yolanda Watson, Karen Brandee Williams, John Finch, and Lois Collins. That same night, the council appointed Angela Redding as interim city manager, Mike Williams as city attorney, renamed the community and recreation centers, called for a forensic audit and a new city solicitor, and dissolved the Development Authority.
- Jill Morris (nominated by Councilman Allan Mears): On April 1, 2019, Morris told the council she favored a proposal by OpenGov to create an “open checkbook” that Mayor Angelyne Butler had pushed for following questions about how the city was handling finances.
The Clayton Crescent has filed an Open Records request seeking:
- Names of all current Ethics Board members, along with the dates they were appointed and when each term ends
- Names of the two Ethics Board members who showed up for training this year, along with the date(s) of training the entity who conducted that training
- The name of the sole Ethics Board member who showed up for the Ethics Board meeting called on August 17, 2021
- All currently pending complaints filed and awaiting an Ethics Board hearing (these complaints are open records under Georgia law)
The city’s Ethics Ordinance provides for the mayor and council to appoint one member. Terms run for two years, but the ordinance says all members “shall serve until their successors are appointed.” “Shall” means they are mandated to serve until they are replaced. In addition, the ordinance requires the Ethics Board to “designate” a chairperson and a recording secretary.
What is a City of Ethics?
Forest Park is not listed among the Georgia Municipal Association’s Cities of Ethics. Neither are Riverdale and Lake City. Clayton County cities that are listed as GMA-certified Cities of Ethics include Jonesboro, Morrow, Lovejoy, and Hampton. GMA also offers this designation to counties; Clayton County (whose Board of Commissioners and Ethics Board have butted heads) is not on its list.
GMA requires local governments that want to be designated as Cities of Ethics to take two basic actions: pass a resolution “acknowledging and subscribing to five ethics principles to govern the conduct of elected officials” and “adopt an ethics ordinance that meets minimum standards approved by the GMA Board.”
The five ethics principles GMA requires are:
- Serve others, not ourselves
- Use resources with efficiency and economy
- Treat all people fairly
- Use the power of our position for the well being of our constituents
- Create an environment of honesty, openness and integrity
The ethics ordinance GMA requires must contain:
- what specific actions elected officials can and cannot take
- due process procedures for any elected official accused of an ethics violation
- punishments for any elected official found to have violated the ethics ordinance
However, GMA says the City of Ethics designation is not automatic.
“Ordinances and resolutions submitted by each city are reviewed by the GMA Ethics Certification Committee, which is comprised of the Executive Committee of the GMA City Attorneys’ Section,” according to GMA’s website. “This committee compares materials submitted by cities with the recommendations of the GMA Board. If this panel of attorneys determines that both the ordinance and resolution submitted by each city meet the established requirements, then the city’s application for certification as a City of Ethics will be approved.”
How to win friends and influence people, or not
On July 6, Cooper brought before the council two proposed amendments to the city’s Ethics Ordinance. One would have required the mayor and council not to send correspondence without first checking with the City Manager as to whether an official response was in progress or had already been sent. The other would ban elected officials from any “attempt to unethically influence or coerce the City Manager or department heads concerning either their actions or recommendations to governing body about personnel, purchasing, awarding contracts, selection of consultants, processing of development applications, or the granting of city licenses and permits.”
The changes were part of a proposed Code of Conduct that would have governed elected officials’ decorum. For years, some members of the Forest Park City Council have engaged in shouting matches from the dais with each other and with members of the public or made other inappropriate comments, such as Ward 2 Councilman Dabouze Antoine publicly disclosing during a council meeting another elected official’s status as a sexual abuse survivor.
At the time, Cooper said the ordinance had been written before he became city manager, but that he had brought it back for council to consider “due to results of an internal operations audit conducted by Mauldin and Jenkins that was previously presented to the Council [on April 19]. The audit listed several concerns from city staff regarding ‘political influences’ that they feel threatens or could even cost them their job and we have had exit interviews state the same.”
That audit found, after interviewing over 70 city employees, that staff were “afraid of losing their jobs due to political influence, taking a risk to try something new, or being responsible for a failed action or activity.”
Asked whether any members of the governing body had tried to circumvent or influence the way the city hires outside businesses, Cooper said that, during his tenure, “I have not been made aware by staff or a contractor of any council members attempting to manipulate the contracting process.”
What is considered an ethics violation in Forest Park?
Under Forest Park’s Ethics Ordinance Section 2-6-5, the following actions are prohibited:
- (a) No city official shall use such position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or herself or others, or to secure confidential information for any purpose other than official duties on behalf of the city.
- (b) No city official, in any matter before the council or other city body, relating to a person or entity in which the official has a substantial interest or from whom the official has received a thing of value, shall fail to disclose for the record such interest or receipt of such thing of value prior to any discussion or vote or fail to recuse himself or herself from such discussion or vote, as applicable.
- (c) No city official shall act as an agent or attorney for another in any matter before the city council or other city body.
- (d) No city official shall directly or indirectly receive, or agree to receive, any thing of value in any matter or proceeding connected with, or related to, the duties of his office except as may be provided or exempted by law.
- (e) No city official shall enter into any contract with, or have any interest in, either directly or indirectly, the city except as authorized by state law. Any official who has a proprietary interest in an agency doing business with the city shall make that interest known in writing to the city council and the city clerk.
- (f) All public funds shall be used for the general welfare of the people and not for personal economic gain.
- (g) Public property shall be disposed of in accordance with state law.
- (h) No city official shall solicit or accept other employment to be performed, or compensation to be received, while still a city official if the employment or compensation could reasonably be expected to impair such official’s judgment or performance of city duties.
- (i) If a city official accepts or is soliciting a promise of future employment from any person or entity who has a substantial interest in a person, entity or property which would be affected by any decision upon which the official might reasonably be expected to act, investigate, advise, or make a recommendation, the official shall disclose the fact to the city council and shall recuse himself or herself and take no further action on matters regarding the potential future employer.
- (j) No city official shall use city facilities, personnel, equipment or supplies for private purposes, except to the extent such are lawfully available to the public.
- (k) No city official shall grant or make available to any person any consideration, treatment, advantage or favor beyond that which it is the general practice to grant or make available to the public at large.
- (l) No city official shall use his position in such a manner as to threaten, intimidate or humiliate the public or city workforce.
- (m) A city official shall not directly or indirectly make use of, or permit others to make use of, official information not made available to the general public for the purpose of furthering a private interest.
- (n) A city official shall not use his or her position in any way to coerce, or give the appearance of coercing, another person to provide any financial benefit to such official or persons within the official’s immediate family, or those with whom the official has business or financial ties amounting to a substantial interest.
- (o) A city official shall not order any goods and services for the city without prior official authorization for such an expenditure. No city official shall attempt to obligate the city nor give the impression of obligating the city without proper prior authorization.
- (p) No city official shall draw travel funds or per diem from the city for attendance at meetings, seminars, training or other education events and fail to attend such events without promptly reimbursing the city therefor.
- (q) No city official shall attempt to unduly influence the outcome of a case before the Municipal Court of the City of Forest Park.
- (r) No city official shall use the attorney or attorneys who are employed by or appointed by the city for personal or private business without paying just compensation therefor.
- (s) No city official shall use his superior position to request or require an employee of the city to:
- (1) Do clerical or other work on behalf of his or her family, business, social, church, or charitable or fraternal interests
- (2) Purchase goods and services to be used for personal, business, or political purposes; or
- (3) Work for him or her personally without offering just compensation.
- (t) No city official shall grant or make available to any person or entity any consideration, treatment, advantage or favor beyond that which it is the general practice to grant or make available to the public at large. No city official shall ask or require any city employee to grant or make available to any person or entity any consideration, treatment, advantage or favor beyond that which it is the general practice to grant or make available to the public at large, or to exercise any discretionary authority except in accordance with established law.
- (u) No city official may participate in a vote or decision on a matter affecting an immediate family member or any person, entity, or property in which the official has a substantial interest.
- (v) No city official who serves as a corporate officer or member of the board of directors of a nonprofit entity shall fail to disclose that interest to the mayor and council prior to participating in a vote or decision regarding funding of that entity by or through the city.
- (w) No city official shall violate any provision of the city charter or ordinances of the city.
Ethics in government are about how elected officials should act, based on accepted notions of right and wrong. An ethical principle is sometimes, but not always, the same thing as what the law says an elected official can or cannot do.
For example, lying is generally wrong but not illegal, but lying under oath is both wrong and illegal. Lying is wrong because it denies objective reality and undermines the basic trust required in social interactions between people. Lying under oath is illegal because, without truth and evidence, there can be no justice system to hold wrongdoers accountable.
Who enforces ethics rules?
GMA offers detailed guidance for city officials through its Handbook for Georgia Mayors and Councilmembers. Ethics issues are addressed very early in the publication—right after the explanation of what each office’s role is.
However, GMA does not serve as a regulatory body over local ethics boards. That is the job of local voters: “Ultimately, it is the local electorate that determines the acceptable level of ethical conduct by the character of those elected to and retained in office.”
In other words, voters who find an elected official’s conduct to be unethical may be forced to initiate a recall petition to remove that official from public office–or wait to pick a different candidate in the next election.
Conversely, if voters don’t care enough to hold their elected officials accountable, and if the Ethics Board has no teeth, local elected officials can skirt whatever ethics requirements are in place–perhaps even while bearing the seal of a “City of Ethics” for four years at a time.
In Forest Park, unless it involves a street festival or charitable item giveaway, the general public is hard-pressed to know what their elected officials are doing. State Open Meetings law requires elected boards to publish their upcoming meeting agendas “within” but as far in advance as possible, during the two weeks before the meeting.
In practice, that leaves a lot of wiggle room.
Because the City of Forest Park regularly publishes its upcoming agenda within three business days of the called meetings, responses to Open Records requests filed in response to published agenda items can be delayed until after the meeting in question transpires–and even then, a “response” could be a request for more time to furnish records, or even for more time to reply to the request.
This makes it difficult for the public and the press to gather timely information about pending matters in advance of council or appointed board meetings, which effectively prevents citizens who aren’t political insiders from taking part in their own government or holding their elected officials responsible for any matters coming before council.
Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, a First Amendment attorney with Caplan Cobb and a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, told The Clayton Crescent that, while the laws as written provide for this overlap, the ethical thing for government to do is to follow “best practices” in making information public.
“You’re talking about a citizen’s ability to look at the agenda, notice any items that they might have an interest in, and request any public records that might be relevant to help them understand that issue, or determine their opinion about something, find. out what’s going on and how to approach that meeting ahead of time.”
“I think often in this arena, what you have to look at is what does the law require and what is the best practice, ” Brewerton-Palmer said, “because the laws are written in a way that gives some leeway to cities to take the time to put together an agenda. It might not be able to be done two weeks in advance for every single meeting. But maybe the best practice is to do that, more generally, because it does allow the public the opportunity to get public records and be more informed citizens. It might not be possible to do that in every circumstance for every meeting if things get added at the last minute, but the Georgia First Amendment Foundation always encourages elected officials to consider the best way to conduct business at their meetings and to respond to Open Records requests that serve the purpose of the Open Records Act and the Open Meetings Act, which is to foster public participation, and allow sunshine in, and let citizens supervise the government and understand what’s going on. So I certainly think a best practice would be to try and issue these agendas in time for people to be able to follow up with Open Records requests, which are not always responded to in three days.”
“It might be legal to do so. Whether it’s the best idea to do so, the best way to run a city, is a different question,” she said. “Is it ethical? Is it the best way to serve your constituents? Is it the best way to make sure what you’re doing is what they’ve elected you to do?”
Citizens who have concerns about the statutory overlap between the Open Meetings Act’s two-weeks-in-advance policy and the three-business-day turnaround for responses to Open Records requests would have to contact their state legislators, Brewerton-Palmer said.
“The Open Records Act and the Open Meetings Act are state laws,” she said. “They are in the purview of the General Assembly. So if there’s an adjustment that a citizen thinks needs to be made in these laws, they can reach out to their assemblyperson, their senator or their representative in the House.”
However, Brewerton-Palmer pointed out, making local officials aware of the problem first might get better results.
“Talk with city officials, who might not ever be really aware of this problem or thinking through it from a citizen’s perspective,” she said. “They lead busy lives, they have a lot going on, meetings change at the last minute, it might not be on their radar. But putting that agenda out even just a few days earlier might be helpful to citizens. So reaching out to officials, letting them know of those problems, suggesting putting in place some city ordinances–rules of city council, for example to require earlier agendas. That’s always possible.”
Cities can facilitate greater openness by just answering basic questions, rather than having citizens or members of the press file formal Open Records requests for routine information. “That process is best handled cooperatively,” she said, “whether it’s a journalist or an ordinary citizen looking for that information.”
The gold standard of open government, Brewerton-Palmer said, is what best serves the public interest: “Cities and counties are free to go above the floor set by the Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Act in pursuing these really worthy goals of open government and citizen participation.”
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