0

Riverdale hires attorney to probe ethics complaint

The Riverdale City Council voted this week to hire Dahlonega attorney, Bruce Edenfield, to investigate an ethics complaint filed by Councilman Kenny Ruffin against Councilman Wayne Hall over alleged abuses of a city-issued credit card and claims of other improprieties.

According to city officials, the City Council has until March 24 to either dismiss the complaint or vote to hold an ethics hearing.

According to City Attorney Deana Johnson, the City Council voted 3-0 (with Councilman Hall excluded), during a regular business meeting on Monday, to hire Edenfield to investigate the validity of Ruffin's complaint, which accuses Hall of using his city credit card to purchase at least $920.85 worth of books used to further private, graduate studies. The complaint also accuses Hall of being disrespectful to other council members, making accusatory and false statements during council meetings, and impeding government efficiency through a number of unexplained vote abstentions — 28 counted from March 9, 2009 to Dec. 14, 2010.

Johnson said the city will pay Edenfield $185 per hour for his services. Some time before March 24, Edenfield is expected to present his findings to the City Council, after which the council will decide whether to dismiss the complaint or go forward with a formal ethics hearing, she said.

"They [City Council members] voted to hire him [Edenfield] as the independent ethics investigator," Johnson said. "I would imagine that he is going to look at the complaint, look at the evidence supporting it, like the receipts and the minutes from the meetings, and he might interview some people as well. Specifically, what steps he wants to take to investigate, that is at his discretion.

"They [City Council members] have to have the hearing within 60 days from the decision [to go forward], unless Mr. Hall asks for more time and the board consents," she added.

Johnson said punishments for violating the city's ethics policy include oral reprimand, monetary fines, and removal from office, depending on the severity of the offense.

Edenfield could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Hall deferred questions about the ethics investigation to his attorney, Keith Martin.

While Section 3-4 (c)1 of the city's code of ethics states that council members shall avoid "using public office for private gain," Martin said the statute is unclear about what constitutes improper purchases.

"We're still trying to discover what the city provides as guidance in purchasing," Martin said. "We're looking to see what yardstick there is and what yardstick some say he may have violated. I know how clear the ordinances are ... they are not."

Ruffin said Hall's book purchases went toward private studies related to a master's degree in public administration, rather than to city-approved texts or Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) training, and therefore, were improper.

"He took an oath to represent the citizens," Ruffin said. "He is not only not fulfilling that, he is abusing it. We have not seen the fruits of his labor. There are no events, no committees, no programs ... all we have seen is that he is progressing toward his degree."

Martin said Hall's book purchases "directly bore on public administration," and therefore were a benefit to Riverdale citizens.

"Wayne Hall didn't buy any biology books," Martin said. "...Is it a better purchase to send somebody to Savannah [to a GMA conference], cover their mileage, and put them up in a hotel? Those things feel really good for city officials, but they suck money out of the city coffers."