Public trust task force questions overlap in Atlanta’s ethics structure

The city of Atlanta’s first Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust is dedicated to evaluating the city’s ethics and transparency guidelines, but at its first meeting Tuesday many of its members had questions on why there were several departments overseeing ethics and transparency.

“There appears to be a lot of overlap,” former judge in the U.S. Northern District of Georgia William Duffey Jr. said during the meeting. “Are we overdoing it?” Members also questioned the creation of an independent ethics compliance officer in March.

The 13-member task force, chaired by the retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia Leah Ward Sears, has the daunting task of assessing the city’s current ethics and transparency guidelines in four meetings and must make recommendations by Sept. 10. The task force will automatically disband 30 days after presenting its recommendations.

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But how the task force will go about evaluating the city’s ethics and transparency efforts was not firmly decided by the close of the meeting. Sears said she plans for those details to be resolved between now and the next meeting, scheduled for June 18.

“We need to get more information,” Sears said. “Today was an introductory meeting, but the next one will be much more in depth.”

One member, former Morehouse College president Robert Franklin Jr., commended the city’s transparency efforts but questioned the 2018 City of Atlanta Board of Ethics report, noting there was a slight decrease in the number of ethics complaints filed.

He said the tips to the Atlanta Ethics Office's Integrity hotline dropped last year. In 2018 there were 95 tips received; in 2017 there were 113.

“It may be due to compliance (efforts),” he said. “…But what if that’s not the case? How are whistleblowers doing?”

The members’ lack of understanding about the city’s current ethics and transparency structure, worried Atlanta resident and florist Maria Furth, who was already concerned the task force was formed as a way to reassure the residents without completing any work.

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“I’m worried this might be another layer to make (residents) feel comfortable,” Furth said after the meeting. However, she is hopeful in knowing members raised the same questions she had about ethics.

Atlanta City Hall’s ethics and transparency issues — sparked after a federal bribery probe was opened under former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration — have dominated much of Bottoms’ tenure.

“We’ve had an extensive conversation about ethics,” Bottoms said at the meeting. “I did not plan on this to really eclipse my first year in office in so many ways.”

Bottoms has made robust efforts to eradicate ethics issues including placing the city's checkbook on the internet for all to see with the implementation of the "Open Checkbook" program and the creation of an independent compliance officer. No one has been named to that newly created position.

This year, Atlanta City Council approved new restrictions on the use of city-issued credit cards and elected officials giving bonuses to their employees after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published several stories last year about Reed and members of his administration's expensive charge card purchases.

“We understand that there are still miles to go,” Bottoms said.

The meeting comes days after the AJC reported the city’s ethics officer Jabu Sengova requested that her board issue a subpoena for city records, specifically the emails of Reed’s former Chief of Staff Candace Byrd. The ethics office is seeking the emails as part of an investigation into the abuse of city-issued credit cards.

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Duffey said the ongoing issues were reminiscent of corruption cases he’s tried in federal court.

“Those were the saddest cases that I presided over because I knew that people began to publicly distrust the people that were leading,” Duffey said during the meeting.

Landscaper Amber Conner said she’s optimistic about the task force after hearing the issues they raised.

“What I liked was that they were not worried about city officials and spoke about protecting whistleblowers,” she said.

The task force will meet again at 5:30 p.m. on June 18, July 30 and Aug. 20. A location for the meeting has not been announced.

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