By D.L. Bennett
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Lynne Riley is a Fulton County commissioner bent on cutting a large chunk out of the county she represents.
Like many north Fulton Republicans, Riley wants to see Milton County re-created from the suburbs north of Atlanta. She’s even chairing an advisory panel that’s helping state lawmakers working on transition issues.
Those actions just seem wrong to a group of six Democratic lawmakers from Atlanta and south Fulton, who say Riley should not be allowed to use her elected office to undermine county government.
They’ve filed a complaint charging her with conflict of interest and violation of her oath of office. They want Riley to give up the remaining 16 months of her term if she’s going to continue her efforts on behalf of Milton.
The case has touched off debate about the role of district politicians, how far district politicians should go to represent local interests vs. broader ones and when does political gain become personal gain.
“She took an oath to support the interest of the county as a whole,” said state Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta). “Now as a sitting county commissioner, she’s advocating for something that’s not in the best interest of the whole county. The two interests are clearly in conflict.”
Bruce said he plans similar complaints soon against two Fulton school board members, Ashley Widener and Katie Reeves, who also serve on the advisory panel with Riley.
Fulton officials will attempt to sort out the case as the county Ethics Board weighs whether it has enough information to call a full-fledged hearing on the matter and seeks answers Riley has so far been unwilling to provide. The board plans to subpoena her soon if it can’t get answers. It has set no timetable yet.
Riley contends she’s simply representing the interests of her constituency, which she believes overwhelmingly supports dividing up the county. She said she’s done nothing wrong.
Riley stressed there’s no ethical conflict because she’s not getting paid, nor does she stand to get any financial benefit from her work on the advisory panel.
“I report to my constituents,” Riley said. “I see my role as seeing that everyone has the information to make an informed decision.”
Paul Moore, who lives in the Birmingham community in north Fulton, agrees Riley’s actions are in concert with her voters. He said he was “delighted Lynne is working on our behalf.” And he said everyone will be better off when Fulton is split.
“Government closer to the people is always best,” Moore said. “If you look back when Milton County was folded into Fulton during the Depression, it created an undue strain on Fulton. That does both north and south Fulton a disservice.”
Still, the debate rages on about how far Riley, or any district politician, should go to represent the narrow interests of those who elected her. Riley’s north Fulton district would end up entirely in the new Milton County.
Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook has found himself in a similar situation.
Some residents of his Buckhead district say the wealthy community should incorporate into its own city, leaving Atlanta in the lurch. Shook, though, has never championed the cause. He fears if it ever came to pass, the new city of Buckhead would leave the smaller Atlanta devastated.
“I have never voted for a program that helped Buckhead but hurt Atlanta,” Shook said.
But such distinctions can be hard to find when there’s money at stake for parks, sidewalks, new facilities or other community programs that eventually get divided up along district lines. Shook readily admits his colleagues “fight like cats and dogs” when money’s available.
Bruce admits the same is true among the members of the General Assembly, who all represent individual districts with interests that don’t always match the state’s.
This case, Bruce contends, goes beyond that kind of normal political disputes because it involves essentially destroying Fulton County. He contends that action is harmful to Fulton and violates Riley’s oath of office to act in the best interests of all of Fulton.
Riley, though, doesn’t accept the premise that dividing up Fulton County is harmful. She claims both smaller governments can prosper after the divorce. And she added that the oath includes the qualifier “in her judgment” what’s for the county good.
“All the information validates two separate counties in the future,” Riley said during a recent phone interview. “I firmly believe I am acting in what in my judgment is in the best interests of the county.”
Fulton County commissioners disagree. They voted in January 2007 to officially oppose the re-creation of Milton County.
Commissioner Bill Edwards, who represents south Fulton, said Riley’s actions are a “clear-cut conflict of interest.” He complains she can act as a mole, giving valuable, sensitive information to the pro-Milton crowd.
“All I want Lynne Riley to do is stand behind board policy,” Edwards said.
In the end, the ethics case must be decided based on the law as written, said Robert Wechsler, an ethics expert from Connecticut.
Typical ethics rules concentrate on financial gain to the elected official, relatives and business interests, he said. Riley’s issues seem more political than ethical, he added.
“There’s always going to be political conflict,” Wechsler said. “It’s not a problem with government ethics. It’s how you use your political situation to get what you want.”