Clayton County Board of Commissioners urged to adopt ethics policy

Advisory panel presents BOC with recommendations

JONESBORO — Clayton County employees and elected officials who discover wrongdoing by another employee or elected official should be required to report it to authorities, a county ethics advisory panel has recommended.

Ethics Advisory Committee Chairman Larry O’Keeffe presented the committees recommendation for improving public trust and ethics in county government Tuesday. He said many of the recommendations are similar to ones made by a previous advisory committee nearly six years ago, but he added afterwards that there are three new sections.

One of them is the duty to report recommendation. Another would bar officials or employees from releasing confidential information for their own personal or financial gain. The third is a recommendation that contractors, vendors and suppliers be eligible for sanctions, along with public officials, if they engage in unethical conduct.

O’Keeffe asked commissioners to take the spirit of their recommendations to heart when they decide on an ethics policy.

“We’re just a bunch of civilians and we had no legal support,” said O’Keeffe. “That’s why I asked them to take the spirit, and intention. We realize it’s going to be re-written. It has to be. We’re not lawyers.”

There are two main recommendations from the advisory panel. One is the creation of a county ethics policy, and the other is the formation a seven-member ethics board to hear complaints of ethics violations and hand out sanctions.

O’Keeffe told commissioners an ethics policy is necessary to rebuild public trust in the county government after years of allegations of wrongdoing, misuse of funds and backdoor deals by officials. He added that a fundamental change to embrace qualities such as transparency, honesty and personal integrity will also need to be adopted.

“Public trust is what we all want to accomplish,” said O’Keeffe. “This document is but a tool to be used to the building of that trust. Everyone in public service will have to work hard to overcome the general perception of self-serving public service.

“Instances of corruption, deceit, cronyism and influence peddling depicted in the media weighs heavily on the public’s mind,” he added.

Most of the ethics board’s membership should be comprised of one appointee each from the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce as well as the county bar association, NAACP chapter, mayors and Clayton State University’s Office of the President, according to the recommendations.

The advisors also recommended the county commission chairman be allowed to appoint a member of the board while the full board of commissioners would also get to appoint a member.

Employees of the county, relatives of commissioners and anyone with a felony conviction in their past will be ineligible to sit on the ethics board. They also must be at least 21, eligible to vote, not in any elected or appointed office and cannot have given more than $100 to the election campaign of any commissioners.

Sanctions could include written reprimands, suspension without pay, termination, cancellation of contracts, disqualification from receiving a county contract for five years, fines of $1,000 per violation and removal from office.

O’Keeffe said the difference between this ethics board proposal and one made by a previous ethics advisory committee nearly six years ago is that this board would have seven members. The one proposed by the previous advisory committee would have had nine members, but it was never adopted by commissioners.

O’Keeffe said the new recommendation is for a smaller number because it would be easier to work with.

“It’s a more manageable number,” said O’Keeffe. “Bigger is not always better. Getting seven people to reach a unanimous decision is a lot easier than getting nine.”

Whether the recommendations will acted upon remains to be seen. The previous advisory committee’s recommendations were never acted upon after they were presented in 2008. O’Keeffe implored commissioners to not let the new recommendations experience a similar fate.

“Please don’t let this languish,” he said. “Please don’t let it be another [6] years because I think this is needed.”

Commission Chairman Jeff Turner, who ran last year on a platform that included ethics reform, expressed support for the recommendations and called on his fellow commissioners to take them seriously. He backed up O’Keeffe’s statement that an ethics policy is needed for the county government.

He also expressed appreciation to the committee for working for months to come up with the recommendations.

“Thank you for all of the hard work and dedication to this cause,” said Turner. “Basically what you’ve done is lay the foundation for us to build upon and to structure an ethics policy. I would hope that my colleagues take a serious look at it. Let’s talk about it, discuss it and lets make whatever changes or revisions and come back and seriously consider passing this document.”