Officials hear ethics revisions

CONYERS -- A study committee offered 15 changes to Rockdale County's unused ethics ordinance that brought the controversial measure back to discussion on how an ethics panel is chosen and whether to fine individuals who bring up false charges against a county commissioner.

David Shipp, chairman of the ad hoc committee charged with recommending revisions to the ordinance, presented 15 proposed changes to the law that was adopted in October 2008. The law pertains only to the Board of Commissioners and was championed by Shipp and county resident Garvin Haynes amid accusations against former Commissioner Jason Hill regarding his membership on the local arts council and a bank board of directors that did business with the county.

The law called for a three-person ethics commission to review complaints. However, the law was controversial and never satisfied either side of the issue. Former commission Chairman Roy Middlebrooks deferred any changes to the law to current Commission Chairman Richard Oden, who succeeded Middlebrooks in 2009.

Oden named an ad hoc committee to study the ethics ordinance last year.

Among the proposed changes was a new process to name a three-person ethics commission that would have the Rockdale County Bar Association name the chairperson and the county Republican and Democratic parties name the other two members.

Shipp said when an ethics complaint is filed, the citizens ethics commission would then expand temporarily to seven members, with three being chosen randomly from volunteers who applied with the county and one member named by the county commissioner facing the accusation.

Commissioner JaNice Van Ness asked why the study commission didn't keep the Rockdale Coalition of Homeowners and Civic Associations in the nomination process for one member as before. She said the inclusion of the party nominations makes the process political.

Shipp said the idea was to mirror the success of the Board of Elections and Voter Registration, which had operated smoothly as a three-member board made up of a Republican, Democrat and nonpartisan member.

"That seems to have worked," he said. "Over time it has been a very fair and honest board and it has worked together to make sure the elections in Rockdale County are run correctly."

Van Ness said part of that may have come from the fact that the Board of Elections has had a non-partisan chairman for 16 years who brought stability to the board.

Removing a fine of $500 for someone determined to have filed a false accusation caused concern for both Van Ness and Commissioner Oz Nesbitt.

Shipp said the $500 penalty would hinder someone from making an ethics complaint who lacked justification "because you would be able to throw it out without even bringing it to the board."

Van Ness called that proposal "ridiculous" and said that while commissioners could face a $1,000 fine, individuals could "make accusations all day long and drag your name through the mud and there may be no merit to it."

Shipp suggested that the permanent three members of the ethics commission could investigate ethics complaints and make public only those they deem legitimate and move on with an investigation.

Another change would require the commissioners to state whether they had taken any campaign contributions or received a promise of a contribution before voting on a rezoning application.

"It's always the loophole," Shipp said. "For example, I promise XYZ commissioner that I would give you $2,000 on your next campaign if you go ahead and vote for this. Both would be saying 'I hadn't received any contributions' but there's a promise of one."

Van Ness said there could be a problem with legal campaign contributions when rezonings come up to a vote, and Shipp admitted that it would be difficult to enforce the clause.

"What it's saying is to keep your hands on top of the table and you won't have anything to worry about," Oden said.

The commissioners will take the proposals under consideration and send them to the county attorney for review.