By Joel Hall
Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton spearheaded a move this week to appoint envoys to assist the county's Ethics Advisory Committee.
The committee, headed by State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro), and consisting of various community leaders, was created in April 2007 to recommend a legal, enforceable ethics policy to the Board of Commissioners.
Members of the BOC hope the envoys -- Michael Smith, county attorney, Alex Cohilas, chief of staff, and Wade Starr, director of policy and planning -- will help the county accomplish that goal.
Recommendations for a new code of ethics, which were submitted to the advisory committee in the beginning of 2008, have been in limbo for more than a year, pending legal review.
Singleton said she believes the envoy group will speed up the process of reviewing the recommendations and aligning them with Georgia code.
"The committee has worked very hard on these recommendations," she said, in a prepared statement. "Now that the work from the ethics advisory [committee] is completed, my discussions with the committee chairman are centered around how we move forward with the recommendations. It is indeed important that the public knows that our actions as public officials are above reproach. I look forward to moving this process along."
Glanton, who serves as chairman of the Ethics Advisory Committee, said there have been many delays in the creation of an effective ethics policy. "There are lot of things that have put us on hold, particularly the election cycle," he said. "We basically had to wait until the new board [the BOC] was set in 2009. At the same time, we have continued to review the ethics polices of other counties. We have looked at Rockdale County, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta, and we have tried to draw out the best parts of those policies."
Larry O'Keeffe, a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee, said that two of the biggest flaws in the county's current ethics policy are its lack of consequences, and the absence of an independent review board.
"Under the current code, the complaints go to the commission, so they are basically hearing complaints on themselves," O'Keeffe said. "For the people to have faith in the government, there have to be consequences and independent adjudication."
O'Keeffe said the rough draft of the ethics code calls for specific consequences for specific actions by county officials. Those consequences include reprimands, removal from office, and administrative fines of up to $1,000.
He said the recommendations must first be "ironed out" by the county's legal staff to ensure that the code conforms to legal standards. "Right now, it's not in a form the commissioners can vote on," said O'Keeffe. "For me [the creation of an envoy group], is a tremendous step toward creating an ethics code that the board can vote on."
Cohilas, who will serve as one of three envoys, said their efforts will help create stronger ethics legislation. "I think the entire board should be commended for making that step forward," said Cohilas. "I look forward to having strong ethics legislation as a part of our procedures. We want to make sure we have a good document, and turn it out as soon as possible."
Glanton said he is glad to see that progress is being made on a county ethics policy with tangible consequences. "It has to be a policy that is reasonable, but it has to be strong, it has to have teeth, and that is the only way we can maintain trust and confidence in our government."