by DOUG NURSE / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Published on: 08/14/07
Fearing that ethics charges are becoming a political weapon, the Milton City Council is clarifying standards under which complaints can be filed and adding penalties for frivolous allegations.
In the eight months Milton has been a city, ethics complaints have been filed against Mayor Joe Lockwood and City Council members Neal O'Brien and Bill Lusk by activists and supporters of other council members. All were thrown out.
And then an ethics board member filed an ethics complaint against another board member.
By comparison, Roswell has had an ethics board in place for 20 years and it has never had to meet.
In all the Milton instances, the defendants claimed the charges were frivolous and politically motivated. And in all cases, the complainants said they were motivated by a desire to hold public servants accountable to a high standard of ethics.
"In this political environment, public officials are vulnerable to ethics charges and we're attempting to reduce the potential that it will be used as a political weapon," said city attorney Mark Scott. "It can paralyze the council from doing the people's work, and it can cause them to spend considerable money on attorney's fees."
But at the same time, the ordinance makes allowances for people who believe their facts justify the complaints.
"We want to strike an appropriate balance," said Council member Julie Zahner Bailey. "You don't want to encourage misuse of the ethics ordinance nor do you want to discourage people from coming forward when they have legitimate concerns."
The original ordinance was modeled after an ordinance in Sandy Springs, which has yet to test its ordinance. Instead, Milton found the holes and contradictions.
Under proposed changes to the ethics ordinance, public officials are in trouble if they knowingly or intentionally violate the ethics ordinance or have a conflict of interest. That protects city council members from being targeted for accidental or technical infractions, Scott said.
The changes also allow false and malicious complaints to be submitted to law enforcement under perjury statutes. The city also may sue to recover the cost derived from a false or malicious complaint.
Zahner Bailey said some of the changes are patches discovered as the ethics ordinance was put into action. For example, she said, the original ordinance included a provision that had the city attorney, who answers to the city council, investigating complaints against the city council. That conflict was resolved by hiring an outside counsel to do the investigations, but now that practice is being added to the ordinance.
Clint Johnson, chairman of the ethics board, acknowledged that Milton has had a disproportionate share of ethics complaints in its short lifetime.
"There is a high interest in the community in what's going and that probably results in a lot of ethics complaints," Johnson said. "It's a new city and they're excited. They're paying more attention to things."