ethics board

Hearing for complaints filed against council members Brooks, Dennison set for November 17

Blackshear’s Board of Ethics will hold a hearing to review recent complaints against Councilwoman Linda Gail Dennison and Councilman Keith Brooks at 6 p.m. Tuesday, November 17, but there is speculation over whether or not it meets the time frame for investigation as laid out in the city’s ethics ordinance.

According to the ordinance, “at least one hearing shall be held within 60 calendar days after filing of the complaint.” That deadline for the complaint filed against Dennison would be Monday, November 9, and the deadline for Brooks’ complaint would be Monday, November 16.

Ethics board members, however, intend to hold a hearing within 60 days of their receipt of the complaints.

“We did not get the complaint until the 20th (of October). It makes sense to me that it would be 60 days after we received it, not 60 days after it was filed,” said board member, Reginald Taylor.

Fellow board member Bob Knapp agreed with Taylor’s interpretation.

“We didn’t get the information until October 20. We’re basing our information on that,” Knapp said.

Former councilwoman and longtime educator Mary Lott Walker serves as the third member of the ethics board. Walker did not return The Times’ calls seeking comment last week.

City Clerk Jenny Grant confirmed all board members received the complaints October 20, seven days after the city council voted by way of resolution to appoint the ethics board to investigate both complaints. (The resolution was unanimously approved at the council’s monthly meeting Tuesday, October 13.)

The November 17 hearing date does fall within that time frame. Taylor informed The Times of the hearing last week, and indicated city hall would officially notify the public. The Times received an agenda for the hearing Friday.

Although the ordinance, as written, says a hearing “shall be held” within 60 days of the complaint filing, another section says any hearings not held within that time frame do not invalidate the complaint  — effectively giving the board of ethics leeway around any of the deadlines specified in the ordinance. And, by legal definition, “shall” more often means “may” rather than “must.”

“Failure to comply with any of the time deadlines in this section of the ordinance shall not invalidate any otherwise valid complaint or in any way affect the power or jurisdiction of the board of ethics or the city council to act upon any complaint,” the ordinance reads.

City Attorney Adam Ferrell wasn’t willing to comment on the ordinance’s ambiguity last week.

“I don’t want to comment on the interpretation of the ordinance at this time,” Ferrell told The Times. “I can’t really comment as to when they can have the meeting.”

The Times learned, by way of an open records request, the city clerk initially tried to schedule a hearing within 60 days of the first complaint filing (by November 9), but was reportedly told by Walker the ethics board would handle setting the hearing.

Grant documented the conversation in a memo to the three board members, offering to take minutes for the hearing and to coordinate having the meeting recorded.

“On the morning of October 23, I was contacted by Ms. Mary Lott Walker regarding the meeting of the Ethics Board. Ms. Walker informed me that the ethics committee would be coordinating the first meeting of the Board of Ethics,” Grant wrote.

The complaints filed against Dennison and Brooks in September mark the first time Blackshear’s ethics board has been tasked with investigating ethical complaints levied against local officials. The ordinance guiding their investigation was approved by the council February 12, 2013, and follows a model proposed by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA).

“This is our first time trying to deal with this ordinance,” Ferrell says. “I’m pretty sure we adopted the model ordinance GMA put out.”

Per the ordinance, Dennison and Brooks shall have the right to written notice of the hearing at least seven days prior to the hearing. They also have the right to legal representation, to hear and examine the evidence and witnesses, and the right to oppose or attempt to mitigate the allegations. Dennison and Brooks may submit evidence or call witnesses on their behalf, but are not required to do so.

The board of ethics’ findings are to be rendered to the mayor and council within seven days after completion of the final hearing and a copy mailed to Dennison and Brooks. The ethics board is required to hold at least one hearing on the allegations, but may hold more as they conduct their investigations and gather evidence.

Potential penalties for Dennison and/or Brooks  — should the ethics board find the complaints against them justified  — include a reprimand or request for resignation from the council, removal from office as provided by the city charter or any combination of those penalties.

The city charter provides two avenues for removal of an elected official as follows:

1. By the vote of four council members after an investigative hearing. In the event an elected officer is sought to be removed by the action of the city council, such officer shall be entitled to a written notice specifying the ground or grounds for removal and to a public hearing which shall be held not less than ten days after the service of such written notice. Any elected officer sought to be removed from office … shall have the right of appeal from the decision of the city council to the Superior Court of Pierce County. Such appeal shall be governed by the same rules as govern appeals to the superior court from the probate court; or

2. By an order of the Superior Court of Pierce County following a hearing on a complaint seeking such removal brought by any resident of the City of Blackshear.

Dennison and Brooks have the right to appeal any decision against them to Pierce County Superior Court within 30 days of the board’s decision. In such a case, the board of ethics and the city would be represented by City Attorney Adam Ferrell.

About the complaints

The complaint against Dennison was filed September 11 by Blackshear resident Wes Kutch. Councilman Shawn Godwin filed a complaint against Brooks September 18.

Kutch filed the ethics complaint against Dennison for reportedly threatening two District Five residents with legal action if they signed a petition recently circulated for the recall election of Councilman Godwin (District Five representative).

Godwin filed his complaint against Brooks for reportedly driving Blackshear resident Sharon Komanecky around on a golf cart while she procured signatures on the petition for Godwin’s recall election.

That petition was verified by the Pierce County Board of Elections Friday, Oct. 9, and Elections Superintendent Leah Ritch has set the recall election for December 1.

(See related coverage in the September 16, September 23 and October 7 editions of The Times.)

Taylor and Knapp both say they’ve reviewed the complaints against Dennison and Brooks, but declined further comment until after the hearing. The ethics board will also be tasked with appointing a chairperson amongst themselves at the meeting.