Hunter absent for meetings as Gwinnett board makes ethics appointment

Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter during the board’s Feb. 28 meeting. Hunter was absent from Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meetings. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter during the board’s Feb. 28 meeting. Hunter was absent from Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meetings. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Tommy Hunter was “out of town on business” Tuesday — but not out of the spotlight.

In the embattled Gwinnett official's absence , his fellow county commissioners held their regular meetings, dealt with the now-routine appearance of protesters , and appointed a familiar face to the ethics board that will investigate him.

In addition, Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement calling for Hunter’s resignation.

“We cannot allow the commissioner to set precedent for unethical behavior without repercussion,” State Rep. Erica Thomas, a Democrat from Austell, said in the caucus’ lengthy emailed statement. “… It has been 43 days since he exhibited the behavior that warrants his resignation or removal, and that is far too long.”

Hunter has been the subject of protests and repeated calls for resignation since a Jan. 14 Facebook post in which he called civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig." He also referred to Democrats as "Demonrats" and a "bunch of idiots."

The Republican commissioner has apologized for his “choice of words” in the post but has also made it clear he has no plans to step down from his District 3 commission post.

The statement from the Black Caucus, a body comprised of 60 members of Georgia’s General Assembly, was sent to media members in the middle of the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners’ 10 a.m. Tuesday meeting. Chair Charlotte Nash had already announced that Hunter would not be present for the day’s proceedings.

Seth Weathers, a consultant who has acted as a spokesman for Hunter, later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the commissioner was “out of town on business.”

Hunter's conspicuous absence came after two consecutive weeks in which he skipped out on open public comment periods at board meetings. Since Hunter's controversial social media activity was first reported by the AJC, those periods have been filled with protesters.

Even without their target present, protesters still showed up. More than a dozen people addressed the Hunter-less board, eating up about an hour of public comment time.

“Invisible Mr. Hunter: You have brought us back to a very divisive time,” one woman, Snellville resident Pat Lark, said. “Please resign.”

Before the protests, the Board of Commissioners appointed Herman Pennamon to the ethics panel being assembled to hear a complaint filed against Hunter. Gwinnett’s ethics panel, which has not been assembled since the county’s ethics ordinance was passed in 2011, is not a standing body and must be created from scratch each time a complaint is filed.

Pennamon had a long career with Georgia Power, including work as a state lobbyist. He also has been a community leader and volunteer in Gwinnett for years, holding board positions at nonprofits like the Gwinnett Coalition, the 100 Black Men of North Metro, the Foster Children Foundation, the March of Dimes and the Red Cross.

He currently runs a Duluth consulting firm that bills itself as a "non-partisan political company that prepares political candidates for the future."

District 4 Commissioner John Heard made the motion to appoint Pennamon on Tuesday.

“He’s a well-rounded citizen of the county,” Heard said, “and has the depth and character, I think, to yield an unbiased, fair review on the ethics panel.”

The ethics complaint against Hunter was filed Feb. 6 by two local attorneys , on behalf of an Atlanta woman named Nancie Turner. The complaint alleges that, with his "racist pig" Facebook post and others , Hunter violated several sections of Gwinnett's 2011 ethics ordinance.

The ordinance is primarily meant to target shady land deals and other corruption, but one of section urges elected officials and county employees to “never engage in conduct which is unbecoming to a member or which constitutes a breach of public trust.”

In addition to the Board of Commissioners, appointments to the board of ethics come from the Gwinnett County Bar Association, the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and the subject of the complaint — in this case Hunter.

The bar association has already appointed local attorney David Will, and District Attorney Danny Porter has appointed a grand juror named Terri R. Duncan. The remaining two appointments have not yet been made, county attorney Bill Linkous told the board Tuesday.

If a complaint is sustained, the ethics ordinance grants the ethics board power to recommend penalties ranging from written reprimand to removal from office. In the absence of a criminal act, however, state law allows for an elected official to be removed only via recall election.