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New county ethics code currently under review

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

After more than a year of work, the Clayton County Ethics Advisory Committee submitted a 36-page document, which will serve as the foundation of a new Code of Ethics for the Board of Commissioners and all civil service-protected employees.

On Tuesday, the 17-member committee submitted the rough draft of a Code of Ethics, which will be reviewed by county's legal staff for the next 30-60 days. After that time, an ordinance will be drafted to adopt the new measures.

The cornerstone of the proposed code is an independently appointed, nine-member Board of Ethics, which would meet on a regular basis to address possible conflicts of interests. The board would also have the power to reprimand or dole out punishment, if deemed necessary.

State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro), chairman of the Ethics Advisory Committee, said taking steps to adopt a new ethics code is "a great move" on the part of the BOC, one which would "build and rebuild" the public's trust in the government.

"It's going to benefit the community, because it presents a desire by the Board of Commissioners to have open and honest government," said Glanton. "The current [ethics] policy was vague in some of its definitions, and who it applied to. We put some teeth in it to address some conflicts of interest."

The draft includes specific clauses on impartiality, disclosure, incompatible employment, nepotism, and receiving awards or gifts. The draft also lists appropriate sanctions for those who violate the code.

The measure would have no bearing on constitutional officers -- specifically, the sheriff, tax commissioner, clerk of Superior Court, or judge of Probate Court. However, the code would apply to all employees of those departments, who fall under civil-service protection.

Larry O'Keeffe, a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee, said an updated ethics code, with an independent review board, would "increase confidence in our elected officials.

"Previous [boards of commissioners] have had no way to address what the citizens perceived as ethics violations," said O'Keeffe. "A lot of the homeowners associations were really pushing for it, because they had questions."

If adopted, the nine-member Board of Ethics would be appointed by several community groups. Two members would be selected by the Chamber of Commerce (one from the staff and another from general membership), while the Clayton County Bar Association, Clayton County NAACP, Clayton County Association of Ministers, Clayton State University Office of the President, and the Clayton County Civil Service Board would have one appointment.

The two remaining board members would be drawn from a pool of candidates from the general community.

O'Keeffe said the board would create an ethics policy that is enforceable.

"Before, you had the commissioners basically enforcing the policy on themselves," he said. "No one is directly appointed by the commissioners, so that keeps everything at arms length."

County attorney Michael Smith said the 30-60 days will give the commissioners time to review the policy and make recommendations, as well as give the legal staff time to ensure that the policy is consistent with the law.

"We want to make sure that things don't conflict with civil-service rules," said Smith.

BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell said he recommended a new code of ethics to the previous board, after ethics complaints were raised against former commissioner, Charley Griswell.

"When we looked at the code ... it was lacking in our ability to do something about it, if they did violate the ordinance," said Bell. "I had recommended this before, but it was not well-received. When the new commission came aboard, they voted unanimously to do it, and I am most appreciative.

"I think we should be open, transparent, and above board when doing the county's business," Bell added. The new ethics code "will give the community a great deal more confidence in the people it has elected," he said.