“Under the ordinance, basically what ya’ll can do is censure an individual, which is a written reprimand that they violated it, or orally reprimand them, or refer it to the city council to have them orally or written reprimand them based upon your decision,” said Cartersville Assistant City Attorney Keith Lovell. “Ya’ll have the right, if you want, to set up forms for formal complaints to be filed on … or you can just say people can handwrite whatever they want and submit that to you, and that’s fine in and of itself.”
“We’ve never had a complaint filed,” he said. “The board back then said ‘Well, when we have a complaint filed, we’ll decide what to do with the forms and all of that’ — they never did.”
Lovell told the two current board members that they did have the ability to make recommendations to update the ordinance, which would then be forwarded to the city council for further consideration.
The committee will only convene when a complaint is formally filed.
“I do know there’s somebody who’s debating filing one right now,” Lovell said. “Whether they do or not, I don’t know. But they told me they will hold off until ya’ll are set up formally before they make that decision.”
While the board, technically, does have the ability to hear complaints about City employees, Lovell said he anticipates the bulk of the complaints received by the committee to pertain to council members.
The committee, as stipulated by the 1999 ordinance, would hear complaints revolving around 10 major ethical violations. That includes voting in matters of personal interest, use of public property, use of confidential information, coercion and unauthorized purchases and meetings of the council
“If ya’ll say ‘No, it doesn’t meet that criteria based on the complaint,’ we stop right there, nothing else is done,” Lovell said. “If you say yes, we can proceed with a hearing that day because we can have all the parties here to do that, or ya’ll can stop it there and say ‘We’ll reconvene whenever for you to come back and present all the evidence to us.’”
As for the board’s ability to mete out penalties for ethical violations, Lovell said the committee is largely limited to censures and verbal reprimands.
“Ya’ll do have the power, if it would be required, to have the police to investigate a particular matter,” he said. “It would not be a criminal report or anything, but it would be an investigation on that issue.”
Lovell also noted that complaints can also be filed against elected City officials based on an “intent” subdivision within the ethics ordinance.
That section bars council members from using public office for private gain, impeding government efficiency or economy or “affecting adversely the confidence of the public in the integrity of the government.”
While such wouldn’t technically constitute guidelines violations, Lovell said the committee would still have the ability to hold hearings to address allegations of the nature.
“It was recently in the news, some city councilman somewhere in the Atlanta area, I forget where, made some racial comments and everybody complained that they needed to be fired and terminated,” he said. “That could fall under that ‘c’ category.”
If the board determines it has jurisdiction over a complaint, Lovell said the committee does have the power to subpoena witnesses.
“The [defendant] does have a right to ask questions of the party that complained,” he said. “The complaining party does not have a right to ask questions, because they’re just here as a witness, basically, to make a statement.”
Public notice of any committee hearings will be required to be posted 24 hours ahead of time. How long it may take for a complaint to be heard by the board, however, depends on the committee.
“We will, of course, like to do it as quickly as possible, but that timeframe will be up to ya’ll,” Lovell said. “If it takes it 30 days, that’s fine. If it takes you a week, that’s fine.”
Lovell said it’s the City’s responsibility to inform “defendants” of their legal rights heading into such hearings.
“If it results in censure or reprimand or anything like that, the City’s personnel office will inform them if it’s an employee, not a council member,” he said. “All of our employees actually have greater First Amendment rights than you and your employer have, with respect to how your employer treats you.”
In those scenarios, Lovell said City employees would have the right to request a liberty interest, or “name-clearing,” hearing.
“Anytime we take a disciplinary action or would terminate an employee based upon any decision that the City would make, that employee has the right to ask for a name-clearing hearing,” Lovell said. “They come and say whatever they want to, why they didn’t do it or why it was wrong or penalized, and the City, the hearing officer for that, can just sit there and listen and doesn’t have to take any action whatsoever.”
Lovell noted, however, that the officer can recommend further actions be taken after the hearing.
All ethics committee rulings, he continued, can be appealed.
“Either party has a right to appeal your decision to the Bartow Superior Court, who can review a matter and make a decision one way or another on it,” Lovell said. “I can tell you from a practical matter that the court frowns on appeals from bodies like you and gives deference to you on your decisions — it’s not something they actually want to get involved with.”
When it comes to potential conflicts of interest, Lovell said committee members are held, more or less, to the same guidelines city council members must follow.
“One is if you have a direct financial interest in the matter being discussed,” he said. “The other one is immediate family members, and by that, it’s children, parents, brothers and sisters.”
He gave Walker and Wilson additional instructions.
“Even if you don’t have a legal conflict, if you think there is a conflict of appearance or you have an issue in your mind that you think it’s a conflict, recuse yourself,” he said. “You know better than anybody else whether or not there would be a conflict involved.”
In the case of a recusal, Lovell indicated that a 1-1 deadlocked vote would lead to the ethics complaint being denied.
For the board’s first official action, Walker and Wilson voted to approve the Cartersville City Clerk’s Office as the secretary for committee meetings.
The board also discussed selecting a third member for the committee. Lovell specified two prospects by name — Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter Executive Director Jessica Mitcham and former Cartersville Mayor Mike Fields.
“I was thinking, for diversity purposes, we probably should ask Jessica first,” Wilson said.
Walker said he agreed.
Until the third member of the board is confirmed, Lovell said it is premature to discuss electing committee officers or making any decisions on complaint forms.
Lovell wrapped up Friday afternoon’s meeting by reminding the board that all of its deliberations and discussions are public record. He also asked the two current board members if they’d prefer having special City email accounts set up to handle official committee business.
“Under the open records act, if we’re communicating to you to your regular email, somebody could potentially ask ‘I’d like to see all your emails and see if any of them have anything to do with the ethics committee,’” he said. “If you’re like me, there’s probably things in your own personal, private emails you wouldn’t like anybody else to see … of course, we could always exclude those and tell them they can’t have those, but we make that offer, really, for everybody on any City board, to be honest with you.”