House Speaker David Ralston watches as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses the House. The Georgia General Assembly continued with the second legislative day of the 2020 session. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Atlanta City Council delays vote on Inspector General

Atlanta city council members delayed voting Wednesday to establish an Office of Inspector General in the face of persistent concerns about whether the proposal would impair independent officials conducting internal audits and investigations of potential ethics violations at City Hall.

The delay came after weeks of negotiations between council members and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration, meant to help solve the city’s most pressing problem: corruption.

A multi-year federal investigation at City Hall has resulted in guilty pleas and indictments of high-ranking bureaucrats and contractors. And it has added momentum to efforts in the Georgia General Assembly to put Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport under state control.

City leaders believe that a powerful Inspector General will demonstrate their seriousness about cleaning up the contracting process and help them retain the airport as the city’s most valuable economic engine.

But the council’s Finance Executive Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Ide began Wednesday’s meeting by announcing the specifics of the ordinance are still being finalized, and that she planned to call a special meeting Friday to consider the matter.

Opposition to the draft IG ordinance has continued to build, after more details became public.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was provided a copy of the draft ordinance late Tuesday and found it would make the city auditor and ethics officer subordinate to the Inspector General. There also are questions about whether the proposal would restrict access to privileged documents by the auditor and ethics officer.

“I don’t know what government or corporate structure allows one person to have so much power,” said Nichola Hines, chair elect of the city’s Board of Ethics and Independent Compliance at Wednesday’s meeting.

The city’s ethics office and auditor currently report to their own independent boards. Critics say that move could erode the independence of those two offices.

Under the proposal, the city’s ethics officer and auditor would retain control over their individual staffs, but the newly appointed IG would oversee their investigations, according to the draft ordinance.

The draft also calls for the ethics and audit boards to merge.

Ethics Officer Jabu Sengova told the AJC that the model being proposed does not follow best practices throughout the country.

“The legislation REMOVES all enforcement authority and weakens the Ethics Code,” Sengova wrote to the AJC in an email.

Sengova: ‘No evidence’ supporting model

The idea for an IG emerged last year out of several meetings held by the Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust — a group attorneys, former judges, accountants that was assembled by Bottoms to help restore confidence in a city government.

Sengova said that the Task Force reviewed how successful IGs function in large municipalities. She said those cities have IGs along with independent ethics officers, auditors and other oversight agencies.

“My office has also done independent research and found no evidence that supports this model,” Sengova said of Atlanta’s draft ordinance.

But former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, who chaired the Public Trust Task Force, supported Bottoms recommendations in a letter delivered to City Attorney Nina Hickson on Wednesday. Sears said the task force suggested folding all the cities investigative entities, including the law department’s compliance officer, under the IG.

However, the task force’s final report never mentioned putting IG over the city auditor.

If the committee approves the ordinance, it could move to the full council on Monday. But because the measure would amend the city’s charter, it would require additional consideration.

Although the proposed legislation appears to diminish some of the two agencies autonomy, it differs from a proposal put forward in an executive order that Bottoms issued late Monday. The executive order would give the new IG control over the ethics officer’s and auditor’s staffs.

The order raised questions about whether it was retaliation for a previous investigation the offices made into Bottoms’ administration last year, in which they concluded that some of the mayor’s campaign workers weren’t properly screen when hired for city jobs and that some were paid from restricted funds unrelated to their actual jobs.

In a letter dated Monday to Bottoms and the City Council, the chairman of the national Association of Local Government Auditors’ Advocacy Committee, warned that the mayor’s proposal could severely damage the auditor’s office.

“The Mayor’s proposed Executive Order giving the inspector general complete authority over the administration, management, direction, operations, and staffing decisions of the City Auditor’s Office introduces risks that could severely impair or dismantle a successful, high performing independent government audit function,” wrote Douglass Jones, who is also auditor in Kansas city, Mo.

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