by Jason Wright / Appen Newspapers
The city's Ethics Board made it clear at its meeting Oct. 26 the complaint against incumbent councilwoman Tina D'Aversa would not be dealt with in any way until after the Nov. 3 municipal election.
"I don't think this is the time or the place for that deliberation to take place," said Joe Whitley, an Ethics Board member. "To inject this board into the political process, that's not something I'd like to be involved with."
The complaint filed by former councilman Neal O'Brien alleges D'Aversa violated the city's ethics ordinance in a series of taxpayer-funded e-mails she sent to her political opponent in the election, Joe Longoria, in early September. In the e-mails, she urged him to drop out of the race and offered him a position on the Ga. 9 Design Guidelines Committee.
O'Brien said in his complaint, among other charges, that the "corrupt bargain" constitutes a bribe and that D'Aversa couldn't use a taxpayer-funded account to influence an election.
D'Aversa said the filing is politically motivated and timed to inflict maximum damage on her campaign.
The decision to not hear the case until after the election was easy to make, procedurally. D'Aversa has 30 days to respond to the complaint filed Oct. 21, which she had not done by the meeting because it had not been delivered to her yet by certified mail. The board didn't feel comfortable discussing the complaint's merits without her response.
"There is no harm in maintaining the status quo," said Ethics Board Chairman Todd Ashley. "But there is significant harm in undertaking something now that would have to be undone later."
But a wrinkle appeared Oct. 24 when O'Brien sent a letter to Ashley asking him to recuse himself from the proceedings, citing what O'Brien called a personal relationship with D'Aversa.
D'Aversa used Ashley in a political advertisement, and he has spoken on behalf of her campaign at political events.
Making a decision on that letter and its call for recusal would be "precedent setting," said Whitley.
With Milton being such a small town and council members appointing the Ethics Board, any one of its members could be accused of having a relationship with any city official, said board member Kristin White. And, as board member Carol Lane pointed out, the ordinance allows members to exercise political speech freely as long as they do not mention being an Ethics Board member.
"You're going to have different relationships, and one of those could be with someone running for office," she said.
Board member Clint Johnson said it is up to Ashley, not the board, to decide whether or not he should step down. Ashley agreed, and vowed to pay for another lawyer to look at Milton's ordinance and give a legal opinion on the matter. He said he couldn't have City Attorney Paul B. Fricke give an opinion, as Fricke has to advise the board — which could be a conflict of interest.
"This has to be right from the get go or I will remove myself," said Ashley. "It's better to be lighter in the wallet than wrong and have to explain something."
The board must take some action on the complaint by Dec. 21, 60 days after it was reviewed by Ashley.