It’s hard to capture what went on at the three ethics board hearings/meetings held over the last month. I picked up my pen on several occasions to write what should have been a news lead only to set it back down and scratch my head.
Quite obviously, the board’s investigation into complaints filed against Blackshear council members Keith Brooks and Linda Gail Dennison marked the first time they’ve ever been tasked with investigating an ethics complaint. No one seemed to know what was going on, how the meetings should proceed or what process to follow. City Attorney Adam Ferrell attempted to provide structure for the board’s one investigative hearing (the second of three meetings), but had limited success.
What just happened?
I wondered that repeatedly, and walked out of city hall perplexed as to how I was going to adequately convey to our readers the chaotic, disorganized mess that the board’s sole hearing evolved into. The first meeting, lasting less than 10 minutes, was simply an introduction of the board. The last meeting was only a three-minute dismissal of both complaints. The board received supplemental documentation for both complaints at the second meeting, but reviewed none of that in public and asked no questions of either defendant.
Absolutely nothing was accomplished. That much is certain.
I’m not entirely sure who is to blame for the disfunction of it all. The ethics board is definitely “green,” but they don’t shoulder all the blame. The ordinance presumably written to guide their actions may look pretty on paper, but it fell apart like a house of cards when implemented.
One section of the ordinance dictates a timeframe for holding investigative hearings while another section says not sticking to that schedule does not invalidate any complaints filed. Say what?
Board members argued they should have 60 days from the time they received the complaints to set a hearing, but that contradicts the ordinance. Their arguement has merit, however. They should be granted the opportunity to adequately review the complaints and all supplemental evidence. A well informed board should, in theory, make the investigative hearing process run smoothly. This process was anything but smooth.
Our mayor says the city is required to acknowledge and have all ethics complaints investigated. But, at least one of the two complaints filed, possibly both, didn’t even meet the most common definition of an ethical violation. Neither Brooks or Dennison acted in a capacity as city officials that would benefit them personally. Neither advocated for the sale of property or a city-funded improvement project that would line their pockets or improve their own property somehow.
Dennison reportedly attempted to sway a Blackshear couple away from signing a petition for the removal of a fellow council member. Brooks reportedly drove a petitioner around on his golf cart while she procured signatures for said petition. An argument could be made that neither choice was the most prudent course of action, but an ethical violation? I think not.
Brooks’ lawyer summed the complaint against him up to “bad blood” between the parties involved. I’d have to agree, but such petty squabbles are not the perview of the ethics board the ethics board. The complaints and whatever money was spent investigating them were a waste of time.
In the end, I think the ethics board members (non-paid, appointed citizens) just wanted to wash their hands of it all. So, they met for a third time just before the Christmas holidays and read prepared statements dismissing both complaints. They may as well have tied up those complaints with ribbon and string and said “Merry Christmas” to Brooks and Dennison.
That three-minute dismissal points to another potential violation, not of the city’s ethics ordinance, but of Georgia’s Open Meetings Law. When did Mary Lott Walker, Reginald Taylor and Bob Knapp unanimously decide the complaints should both be dismissed? When did they sign those prepared statements? They held no deliberation on either complaint in open session. Did they meet privately? I hope not.
I agree with Brooks’ attorney on a second point, too — these cases could set a precedent for an onslaught of frivolous complaints by residents and/or fellow council members with something stuck in their craw. Such a ruckous would destroy any legitimacy the ethics board should hold.
The city council should consider that potential problem very carefully in the coming year, and seriously contemplate a revision to the ethics ordinance dictating how complaints are to be handled. Blackshear’s residents deserve a more efficient process, not another waste of time.
Editor’s Note: This editor would much rather have penned a holiday column capturing the sparkle of twinkling tree lights and the wonder of Avery Kate’s first Christmas, or perhaps a celebration of our “Miracle in Bearville” than the opinion you’ve just read. Here’s to brighter days ahead and Merry Christmas wishes to our readers. God bless us one and all!
• Sarah Tarr Gove is news editor of The Blackshear Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.