The Union Recorder

April 1, 2013

City ethics board setup as deterrent

Kyle Collins
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE —  

The City of Milledgeville officially became a City of Ethics within the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) last June. City council adopted an ethics policy March 27, 2012 to assist with the application. 

The code of ethics relates to travel, representation and business dealings of city employees, elected officials, appointees and volunteers with the purpose to encourage high ethical standards in official conduct, while also setting guidelines, seeking disclosure and providing terms of discipline for those who refuse to abide by the policy's terms. 

The policy outlines finance responsibilities and expressly forbids the use of city funds, facilities, personnel, equipment or supplies for personal use. The code ordinance also prohibits officials from drawing travel funds for sanctioned events and then failing to attend.

It established a Board of Ethics whose members, being city residents, serve two-year terms and are appointed by council and the mayor.

Mayor Richard Bentley said no particular event caused the ethics action last March though there were some issues with city credit card use that came to light around the same period.

“This was part of us becoming a certified City of Ethics within the GMA. We had sought that for some time,” Bentley said. “It wasn't a new development. The ethics board was part of that process.”

The three-member board of ethics was finalized May 23, 2012. Patricia Hicks joined Georgia College professor Clifton Wilkinson Jr. and Baldwin County part-time state court judge Alan Thrower on the three-member panel charged with investigating any ethics complaints filed against city officials and designees. Members serve without compensation.

Bentley said an unbiased group of non-elected officials is better suited to handle complaints.

“If we receive a complaint, then an impartial body would be asked to review those allegations. It removes any type of animosity from it being a council internal research, which I don't think would be appropriate anyway,” the mayor said.

All complaints against city officials are filed with the city clerk, who then delivers them to the city manager Barry Jarrett. No complaints are allowed against a person seeking election as a city official from qualifying through the final election certification to deter politically motivated submissions.

Once the proper form is received and signed under oath, a copy goes to the Board of Ethics, the mayor and alderman within a week.

According to the ethics code, the three-member board “shall review it to determine whether the complaint is unjustified, frivolous, patently unfounded or fails to state facts sufficient to invoke disciplinary jurisdiction of the city council.”

For those not dismissed, the Board of Ethics would then collect evidence and add the findings and results of its investigations to the complaint file. The group must hold a hearing within 60 days.

Any city official who is the subject of an inquiry will be notified of the allegations prior to the first hearing held by the Board of Ethics. The official has the right to submit evidence and call his or her own witnesses.

Findings pass on to council for action based solely on the presence of a discernable ethics violation.

“Our job would be to recommend a punishment,” Thrower said. “If we find there is no violation period, then we are done.”

The rules allow for the censure of an official, or council may ask for a resignation from office. 

“We cannot remove anybody. The only way a person can be removed from their office is conviction, indictment or recall,” Bentley said. “The only thing we can do is a censure of some kind. It would be made part of the record. That's about as far as we can go.”

Thrower said so far there have been no referrals or need to meet.

The ethics board member stays ready though he hopes to never be called upon.

“If we had something come up, we would refer it to them. We put that in place knowing that it would not be used very often and hoping that it would not be used at all,” the mayor said.

In Thrower's opinion the ethics backbone guarantees a better government. Elected officials know the standards and face repercussions just like anyone else.

“To me it says the city is striving to always look and act like it's doing the right thing even when nobody is looking,” Thrower said. “Sometimes just having the ethics committee put together is a reminder.”

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