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12-6-04 Counties and Ethics Laws

Local government needs to be transparent.   The local media can play an important part.  Unfortunately, in some areas, it is part of the problem also.  In those cases, an active, vigilant and aggressive Citizenry can expose unethical and even corrupt activity.



December 4, 2004


Counties and Ethics Laws


By Wendell Dawson, Editor, AVOC, Inc.


For several weeks, I have been following the ethics questions raised recently in Chatham County.  The same issues exist in most counties.


Some are able to cover it up better than others.  In time, unethical conduct and even corruption boil to the top because of changes in makeup of Boards, staff and changed conditions or attitudes of those participating.


Election results and changes seem to be the root of the grievances in Chatham.  As new officials take office around the State in January, there will be more claims as successors review, evaluate and renounce actions of their predecessors.


Some losers may (and justifiably in many cases) blame their failure on political chicanery and other ethics questions that were not as visible before the election and results opened some eyes.


Local government needs to be transparent.   The local media can play an important part.  Unfortunately, in some areas, it is part of the problem also.  In those cases, an active, vigilant and aggressive Citizenry can expose unethical and even corrupt activity.


Life is full of change.  Things change.   I am convinced that unethical conduct will be revealed and punished in time.   I believe that based on years of elective office and observing many elected and appointed officials and seeing them come and go. 

The Savannah Morning News



December 3, 2004                    EDITORIAL


Follow ethics law


WHEN THE Association County Commissioners of Georgia recommended in 1990 that county commissions adopt a code of ethics, Chatham County commissioners wasted no time. They were the third, after Clarke and Cobb counties, to enact the measure. For that they deserve commendation.


 Unfortunately, the ordinance's requirements have never been put into practice. That could change today if Commissioner John McMasters has the needed votes. Regardless of why he's pushing this issue, the county needs to take ethics seriously. This ordinance is the law and it should be followed. 

Commissioners unanimously approved the ethics ordinance on Oct. 19, 1990, to promote and maintain public trust in public service, as per recommendation of the county staff. From the beginning there was confusion. Even though the ordinance states that it would become effective immediately, the motion to approve it included an effective date of Jan. 1, 1991. 

That appears to be the last time anyone paid attention to the measure until Mr. McMasters came upon it recently. Using the provisions of the ordinance, this week he filed ethics complaints against Commission Chairman Billy Hair and Commissioner Harris Odell. Mr. McMasters contends that both men had conflicts of interest while sitting on a panel to pick candidates for the county's Recorder's Court. Tammy Cox-Stokes, appointed to one of two vacancies on the court, is Mr. Odell's former law partner. She also is a former member of the Board of Assessors. Mr. Hair has filed suit against the board to recover a tax exemption on his Modena Island home. 

Conflicts in voting are just one part of the ethics ordinance, none of which have ever been followed. It requires commissioners and their families to submit annual financial disclosures.  The ordinance also calls for the County Commission to create a five-member Board of Ethics to hear complaints. This board would be made up of one member appointed by commissioners, Superior Court judges, Savannah Bar Association, Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters. No members have ever been named. The Board of Ethics is similar in makeup to those named in other Georgia cities and counties. The City of Atlanta, for instance, has a board that includes seven members appointed by the City Council, including one from the six universities in the city and one each from League of Women Voters, the Atlanta Business League, Chamber of Commerce, Planning Advisory Board and the city's two bar associations. The Chatham ordinance allows the Board of Ethics to determine whether conflicts exist or if policies are violated.

Anyone found to have violated the ethics provisions can be censured or reprimanded. In addition, certain official actions by the County Commission can be voided, and some civil recovery can be sought.  At today's County Commission meeting, County Attorney Jon Hart is expected to advise commissioners on what to do about the ordinance. Since it was legally adopted - then ignored for nearly 14 years - we believe the ordinance should be left on the books and its provisions put into practice.  Mr. McMasters says he expects to hear some sniping from the community for pushing this issue. After all, he lost his re-election bid last month and has just a few weeks left in office. But Mr. Masters is not the issue. The public needs to know that elected officials are acting impartially and in the community's best interest, not to line their pockets or those of their friends and family. Putting this ordinance into action is the right thing to do.





County says no to ethics panel
Sean Harder
Commissioner Harris Odell responds with his own complaint against John McMasters as tensions worsen in the final days of the commission.

Political tensions reached a boiling point on the Chatham County Commission Friday as Harris Odell Jr. fired back at John McMasters, filing his own ethics complaint against the outgoing commissioner……..

Savannah Morning News



December 5, 2004                  OP-ED


County's rejection of ethics board is simply business as usual

By Tom Barton


Call me cynical. Tell me I'm jaded, a true doubting Thomas. But don't call me surprised.


When the Chatham County Commission gave a big thumbs down on Friday to a panel that would enforce the county's ethics code, it was as shocking as water flowing downhill. Or, better still, as stunning as someone bending over and picking up a $0 bill left that someone dropped on the sidewalk.


The 7-2 rejection of ethics enforcement simply followed the long, time-honored tradition of other elected boards that have served Savannah and the county for as far back as people who are alive can remember. In fact, it's more like a "shadow " code of ethics.


It goes like this:


"It's OK to use your public office to reward your friends and family and punish your enemies and their families. It's also fine to use your position to further your personal career or pump up your ego. Even to get dates. For some in public office, this job is their career. They couldn't hold down a decent-paying job in the private sector unless their uncle owned the company.


"It's acceptable to serve in a public post and do as much as possible to keep everything you do private. There's nothing you can do about public meetings or public pre-meetings. But you can cut a lot of deals in private, as long as there's no quorum and no goo-goos (good government types) see you. You can keep your business and career practices hidden. No one needs to know how much money you're making or where it's coming from or exactly how your public life is woven into your private one.


"That doesn't mean you get a free pass to lie, cheat, steal or pretend that Moses handed down the Ten Suggestions, not the Ten Commandments. You could go to jail for that. Or worse, get voted out of office and have to find a real job. But it does mean if you choose to do these things, then you better not get caught."


This shadow code of ethics is powerful stuff. And it's not all evil or horrible. For example, if you are self-employed, the public position you hold gives you some name recognition. As long as your name stays off the police blotter, and you don't go around kicking dogs, burning flags or cheating at poker, that's free advertising for your business or profession……