Milton wants to depoliticize process for ethics complaints

Having handled five ethics complaints in its three years of existence, the north Fulton County town of Milton wants to change the way it deals with ethics complaints.

Mayor Joe Lockwood said the city needs to remove politics from the process.

Milton now uses a board made up of residents appointed by the City Council to hear complaints. The city attorney on Monday suggested hiring one to three attorneys from outside Milton to handle the complaints and pass judgment.

Lockwood said it became clear the process needed changing after the March hearing for former Councilwoman Tina D’Aversa, which turned into a who's who of city politics.

Before being voted off the council in November, D'Aversa was accused of using city e-mail to try to bribe her campaign opponent into dropping out of the race. Neal O’Brien, a former council member, filed the complaint two weeks before the election. He was represented by a former city attorney, Mark Scott, and the chairman of the ethics board was Clint Johnson, a former council candidate. Joe Longoria, who didn’t drop out of the race and beat D’Aversa, testified along with Lockwood.

“It was innately political,” Councilman Alan Tart said earlier this week.

The board took 51/2 hours to find that D’Aversa had improperly used government e-mails and engaged in conduct unbecoming a council member. When the case was forwarded for punishment, the council chose to do nothing. D'Aversa could not be reached for comment this week but said after the hearing that she felt the complaint was political payback for backing the candidate who beat O'Brien in 2007.

D'Aversa appealed the ethics board decision April 15 in Fulton County Superior Court.

Lockwood said all five complaints handled by the ethics board have been political, either because the targets were elected officials or “somebody was trying to get somebody else.”

The ethics board decided only the complaint against D’Aversa deserved a full hearing. The other four were dismissed for lack of merit.

Johnson, who has been an ethics board member since its creation, said the board acts "as a filter" and has sensitivity to local needs.

"You put three lawyers in there, you don't know what they'll say," Johnson said.

Lockwood said he never felt it was fair to ask residents to judgeelected officials. He also thought a new system might cut down on frivolous complaints.

"With this type of system it would make people that want to file an ethics complaint have their information and be pretty confident in their case before they file it," he said.

Ken Jarrard, the city’s attorney, said he will prepare a recommendation for the council to consider at a future meeting.