HB 678 would have imposed ethics code on BOC, appointed boards

UPDATE 10:26 p.m.: ADDS Henry County model
UPDATE 4:01 p.m. 3/30: LINKS existing county Ethics Code (see Davenport quote)

A bill brought forth by Clayton County residents seeking to limit conflicts of interest, nepotism, and other ethics violations on the BOC and appointed boards failed in the Georgia Senate on the last day of the 2023 session.

HB 678 would require a code of ethics for members of the Board of Commissioners, as well as for appointees to various county boards and county employees. The definition of “official or employee” specifically excludes “superior and state court judges and their immediate staffs, the district attorney, the solicitor of the state court, the clerks of the superior and state courts, magistrates, the judge of the probate court, and their respective staffs.”

Clayton County does have an appointed ethics board, but the board can only make recommendations to the BOC, not enforce members to comply.

Reps. Sandra Scott (D-76), Yasmin Neal (D-79), Rhonda Burnough (D-77), Demetrius Douglas (D-78), and El-Mahdi Holly (D-116) cosponsored HB 678, which had passed the House 162-0 (with 13 not voting, including the empty District 75 seat and with 5 excused).

Local activist Carol Yancey and a group called Citizens Focus Group had asked the Clayton Legislative Delegation to bring the bill before the General Assembly.

In an e-mail dated Saturday, March 25, Yancey wrote that the House had sent HB 678 to Sen. Valencia Seay and Sen. Gail Davenport and urged people to write the senators no later than Sunday to ask them to support the bill.

On Wednesday, the bill was removed from the Senate consent agenda around 11:05 a.m. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones said the measure would be taken up later this evening. A few minutes later, Seay rose in opposition to the bill and it was quickly voted down:

YouTube video

After the vote, Seay told The Clayton Crescent that the House sponsors had not brought the bill to the senators’ attention beforehand so that they would have time to look it over. “I signed it and Gail signed it,” Seay said, but then she got a call from Hambrick, “my commissioner,” who reportedly said a “county attorney” had had a problem with it. Seay then nipped it in the bud, working the Senate chamber for a no vote. The bill failed with 4 yes to 49 no votes.

According to an e-mail Yancey sent out, State Rep. Sandra Scott said that District 2 Commissioner Gail Hambrick asked Sen. Valencia Seay not to back the bill, allegedly at the request of a “county attorney.” Scott confirmed that was her understanding of the matter.

Seay said she did not know which attorney Hambrick allegedly had spoken with.

Seay added that there’s always next session, but made it clear that she did not appreciate having been left out of the loop.

“I’ve worked both sides [House and Senate],” Seay added. “These young ones think they can spring something on me. See how quick I can shut it down.”

Sen. Gail Davenport, when asked about the ethics bill, said, “There already is one.” (You can read the existing Clayton County Ethics Code here.)

The bill read in part, “It is essential to the proper administration and operation of the Clayton County government that its officials and employees be, and give the appearance of being, independent and impartial, that public office not be used for private gain, and that there be public confidence in the integrity of Clayton County officials and employees. Because the attainment of one or more of these ends is impaired whenever there exists in fact, or appears to exist, a conflict between the private interests and public responsibilities of officials and employees, the public interest requires that the General Assembly protect against such conflicts of interest by establishing by law appropriate ethical standards with respect to the conduct of the officials and employees of Clayton County in situations where a conflict may exist. The General Assembly recognizes that an appropriate and effective code of ethics for appointed officials and employees of Clayton County is also essential for the proper administration and operation of the Clayton County government.”

The Clayton Crescent e-mailed Reed and Hambrick, asking them to clarify any parts of the bill that might pose an issue, but has yet to receive a response.

The Senate’s move is not sitting well with some House members, particularly Rep. Rhonda Burnough.

Scott said, “Senator Seay said she didn’t know anything about it, so she called up the commissioner [Hambrick] and she told her not to sign off on it. Why she didn’t know anything about it, I don’t know, because I sent that to her. I sent that out to everybody.” Scott added that “we did not have a conversation” and that both sides had not had any meeting about the bill.

Asked to comment, Chairman Jeff Turner said he was “unaware” of any BOC vote authorizing a request to vote against the measure.

Clayton County Ethics Board Chair Walter Nix said he understood that the proposal for a code of ethics was modeled after one in Dekalb County.

Yancey said the bill was modeled on Henry County’s approach:

In other Clayton-specific legislative news, the Senate passed a version of a street-naming bill that contained a stretch of road named in honor of Dr. Barbara Pulliam, but that did not include former Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner’s name. The House had passed a bill, HR 256, that did include a dedication of the Jeffrey E. Turner Parkway along State Route 138 from Highway 54 to North McDonough Street, in recognition of Turner’s service as the county’s first Black police chief.

Bills of wider importance as the session winds down include:

  • HB 196, a measure to move state medical marijuana licensing to the Department of Agriculture failed by one vote in the Senate after much extended debate;
  • a school voucher bill failed by four votes in the House, with several Republicans crossing over to vote against the measure and much cheering by Democrats;
  • a conference committee is trying to work out HB 89, a bill that would limit truck weights and allow local law enforcement to enforce those weights on local roads;
  • a ban on private donations to county elections offices (like Clayton County’s requested grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute’s Democracy Fund);
  • mandatory five-year minimum sentences for people who recruit others into gangs, with a harsher 10-year minimum for those who recruit children under 17 or people with disabilities into gangs;
  • more robust early childhood literacy support, including three checkups each year for kids from kindergarten to third grade and a mandatory individualized reading plan within 30 days for kids having trouble;
  • SB 62, which requires municipalities and counties to enforce anti-camping laws against homeless people;
  • and on Monday, SB 92, which created an oversight board for district attorneys and solicitors general—something opponents say is redundant and constitutes the legislative branch interfering with the judicial branch.
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Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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