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  •   ethics watch  

    Local ethics boards get no respect

     

    By JIM WALLS

    Twice a year, members of the Cobb County ethics board meet to deal with housekeeping matters. Then, as they have for the last decade, they go home.

    For a time last year, DeKalb County’s ethics board couldn’t even get that much accomplished. The panel lost so many members that it couldn’t muster a quorum, so the chairwoman stopped calling meetings until the vacancies were filled.

    And in Fulton, a state legislator contends the county’s ethics board should have no power to impose fines or sanctions because its members were appointed improperly.

    Bottom line: Local ethics boards get no respect. As a consequence, enforcement of city and county ethics codes is often anything but robust.

    The state Capitol buzzed about ethics for months after former House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s career crashed and burned late last fall. After some contentiousness, lawmakers passed an ethics bill with more disclosure requirements and stiffer fines for violators.

    But at the local level, with one exception, discussion of ethics enforcement is much more rudimentary.

    Atlanta clearly sets the standard in the metro area. The city spends $340,000 a year on oversight, employs a full-time staff of three and requires up to four types of disclosures — personal finance, gifts, travel and conflicts of interest — for roughly 1,500 city employees.

    On top of that, the Board of Ethics has enough clout that it’s fined several current and former members of the Atlanta City Council. And the board hasn’t even wrapped up its investigation of Councilman H. Lamar Willis and his phantom foundation yet.

    Shirley Franklin, as soon as she was elected mayor in 2001, created an ethics task force charged with “instilling a culture of ethics within city government.” The task force called for a full-time ethics officer to educate, investigate and monitor for compliance with the city’s ethics code.

    “Employees want to do the right thing and sometimes they don’t know what the right thing is, so you need someone to educate them and answer their questions,” ethics officer Ginny Looney said.

    Looney conducts 75-minute training sessions for new city employees. “It’s not enough,” she said. “I could use more, but that’s the time allotted.”

    City departments may also request longer training sessions that approach three hours. Looney is trying to develop online training tools as well.

    To reduce the opportunity for political influence, members of Atlanta’s ethics board are appointed by outside organizations — the League of Women Voters, business and lawyer organizations and the like.

    A block away, attorney and state Rep. Wendell Willard is challenging the makeup of the Fulton County Board of Ethics, whose members are chosen in similar fashion. Suing last month on behalf of client Lynne Riley, a departing county commissioner, Willard said the Georgia Constitution bars elected officials from delegating such appointments to outside parties.

    “All government is derived from the people,” Willard said in an interview. “They’re delegating what is their authority to a third party, and that’s what the Constitution says cannot be permitted.”

    Five other attorneys — including Rep. Ed Lindsey and Doug Chalmers, a legal adviser to House Speaker David Ralston — signed Riley’s complaint as co-counsel.

    Fulton’s board has no budget for ethics investigations, training or monitoring for compliance with disclosure requirements, nor do Cobb and DeKalb’s. Gwinnett and Clayton don’t even have boards, although procedures exist for enforcing the ethics code.

    Cobb last year spent $3,200 to support its ethics board — roughly 1 percent of Atlanta’s ethics spending. The county got what it paid for.

    Said attorney Lynn Rainey, who’s kept the minutes and organized board elections for the last seven years: “We haven’t had a single complaint in all those years. The fact is, nobody has filed a complaint.”

    That’s not surprising. Nothing on the county’s Web site explains who’s on the board or how to contact them. Nor is there a form for a citizen or employee to lodge a complaint — because there is no form. I had to call the county clerk’s office to get Rainey’s name and phone number and a list of board members.

    So how might a citizen go about filing a complaint?

    Obviously, Rainey said, “they would have to be inquisitive.”

     

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