Few county governments attract a team of watchdogs like Forsyth. From ethics complaints to open-meeting violations, if it happens, county officials get an earful.
Last year, county leaders began tinkering with the ethics ordinance after a slew of complaints were filed — including five against the ethics board itself. In all, the board heard eight complaints. Since county leaders took up the issue, this year, one ethics complaint has been filed.
By comparison, Cobb County heard one complaint this year, its first in 10 years. Gwinnett has had no complaints filed since it revamped its ethics code in 2011.
Rather than adjust its current policy, Forsyth County decided to reconstruct the entire ethics board, replacing the five local members with a three-member tribunal of out-of-county attorneys. The new code went into effect in November, although the old board still has one case it must hear before dissolving.
“I got so tired of people using the ethics board as a battering ram during political season and for political vendettas,” said Commissioner Patrick Bell, who proposed the new arrangement last June.
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The Forsyth County Ethics Board had been composed of one appointee each from the Forsyth County Bar Association, county elected officials, county employees, the county Civil Service Board and the County Commission. Members are not compensated for their time or travel.
Most people seem to favor the change — even government critics.
“You have to take out the political appointments, the crony influences,” said resident Terence Sweeney, who filed seven of the eight ethics complaints last year. “Having a pool of outside lawyers who know the law is paramount because lawyers hold themselves to a higher standard.”
All of Sweeney’s ethics complaints were ultimately dismissed. He filed five against each member of the ethics board for failure to hold meetings during specified dates. That case ultimately went before a Superior Court judge, who ruled against Sweeney.
Sweeney also filed a complaint against three county commissioners whom he saw attend a meeting with Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt. The ethics board dismissed that complaint, but Sweeney filed a separate complaint with the Georgia attorney general’s office, which ruled the commissioners had violated the spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
The new ethics policy is modeled after Milton’s revised ethics ordinance passed in 2010. Within a year of the city’s founding in 2006, four members of the Milton City Council, including Mayor Joe Lockwood, were brought up on ethics charges. All but one were dismissed. The only complaint to gain a hearing was filed against a former City Council member who was accused of using city email to try to bribe her campaign opponent into dropping out of the race. One ethics board member later resigned, complaining the panel was “continually used as pawns in a political game.”
Soon after, the city reconstituted its ethics board, appointing attorneys from out of town to hear future ethics complaints. There have been none.
Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard is also city attorney for Milton and served during the ethics board conflict. He said bringing in outside members to hear ethics cases eliminates suspicions of favoritism and discourages political attacks.
The old system was rife with problems, despite the best efforts of the volunteers who served, he said.
“It just caused a whole level of scrutiny, not only on the behavior that was the subject of the complaint, but even on the participants who were supposed to be presiding over the complaint,” he said. “We just don’t think it’s working as well as it could be.”
That kind of scrutiny has taken its toll.
Early in 2011, George Pirkle, a founding member and chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Ethics, resigned, explaining he was stepping down because of “public ridicule” of the board’s work.
The criticism didn’t abate. Later that same year, ethics board members were cited for failing to hold meetings in accordance with the county’s ordinance. That complaint was later dismissed by a judge who had to step in because the ethics board couldn’t decide a case against itself.
Brant Meadows, who faced an ethics charge when he served on the county planning commission several years ago, said the change is overdue.
“I’m in favor of removing the politics and increasing the professionalism,” he said.