Canton man questions free Y memberships for officials

A Canton man hopes his ethics complaint will change the way elected officials do business, even though the complaint was not investigated.

Andy Alexander asked the city Ethics Investigative Committee to look into whether the former mayor and city council members who oversaw building an $8 million recreation center, which was turned over to the YMCA, got free Y memberships.

They did receive the free memberships, but Alexander did not have proof on Monday when the committee heard him. When members asked for names of those who received the perk, worth $500 to $972 a year, he declined to fill out an affidavit naming names.

"It is not something you want to do, to give blanket statements without proof," the 79-year-old Alexander said in a telephone interview.

Case closed.

Former city officials confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday they got free memberships in 2005 that ended when they left office.

Former Mayor Cecil Pruett accepted the gift but said he thought it was inappropriate and did not use it.

Two council members still serving, Amelia Rose and Pat Tanner, could not be reached.

Former members JoEllen Wilson, Wally Fowler, Lester Cantrell and Wade Buchanan said they thought the memberships were appropriate.

"If I had felt there was some kind of ethics violation, if it was an exchange for anything they had given, it would have raised a red flag," Wilson said.

Wally Fowler said: "It was explained to me as that it was not costing the city anything. If it was, I would not have accepted it at all. I saw nothing wrong or illegal about it if it was a perk from the city."

Alexander said those attitudes illustrate his concern.

"That is the fundamental cultural problem, that they don't see anything wrong with taking perks," he said.

Canton's code of ethics says officials should not take gifts that could be seen as influencing their decisions. The city's deal with the YMCA allows the Y free use of the city facility, while the Y pays to maintain it and operate programs.

John Hicks, the YMCA director, said no city official asked for a membership, and there was no discussion of it during negotiations with Canton. The YMCA gave the memberships to say thanks, and no memberships have been given to current officials, Hicks said.

"Maybe it was not very smart on our part politically. We are just in the business of trying to be nice to people," Hicks said.

Bill Bozarth, the Georgia Director of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said appearances matter.

"Officials need to be sensitive to the fact that it does not look good to accept gratuities from an organization with which they are doing business, even if there is no bad intent," he said.

Tickets to sporting events and memberships used to be typical gifts for public servants, but they have been   questioned as creating potential conflicts of interest in recent years, Bozarth said.

"It doesn't look good. You have to draw a line somewhere," Bozarth said.

Former Canton council member Lester Cantrell said the $2,100 a year in city salary barely covered the cost of his gasoline doing city business. He thinks the ethics complaint is just someone trying to stir up trouble, he said.

Alexander's complaint says he sympathizes with poor pay, but making up for it with perks not available to every Canton resident is a questionable way to do business.

"Where does the slippery slope end?" he said in the phone interview.

He hopes the city will consider tightening its ethics ordinance.

City Councilman Bob Rush, one of three Ethics Investigative Committee members, said citizens have told him they thought accepting the memberships was wrong. But he also said the council members did not solicit the memberships and they were given as a goodwill gesture.

"You have the feeling that no one considered it an ethics violation," Rush said. "So it is my feeling it was not something we would pursue any further."

City Attorney Bobby Dyer, also a member of the committee, said names were required in the complaint in order for it to be passed to the ethics board.

He declined to give an opinion about the propriety of accepting the memberships.

"But I will say this," Dyer said. "There are several places in the ethics ordinance where something like this could be addressed."