Mayor wants ethics code abolished

Ousting would require recall vote

Mayor David Lockhart

Mayor David Lockhart

FOREST PARK — Mayor David Lockhart wants to abolish the city’s code of ethics to make it harder to oust officials but couldn’t get support of council Monday night.

The issue can be re-visited any time, however.

Councilwoman Latresa Akins made the motion to eliminate the city’s code section governing ethics but it died for lack of a second.

Councilwoman Maudie McCord said she wanted time to think about it and council members Tommy Smith and Linda Lord concurred.

Lockhart’s request appeared to have caught the council by surprise. Lord wanted to know what would take the place of the code of ethics.

“If you commit a crime, you get incarcerated,” said Lockhart. “If you are acting foolish, the people have the right to recall you if you are acting so badly you need to be removed from office.”

Lockhart said he’d rather a member of council be removed by constituents than by a majority of the board.

“The code of ethics we have now puts us in charge,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a good balance. It’s not so much about the way it’s been used in the past as it’s ripe for abuse.”

The Board of Ethics met in October in response to complaints of violations by Lockhart, Smith, McCord and Akins. The board, made up of members appointed by the accused elected officials and Lord, voted to not hire an independent officer to hear the complaints.

“Fortunately, we have a great board,” said Lockhart. “The code is well-intentioned but subject to abuse.”

More than two years ago, a former Board of Ethics voted to hire a hearing officer to hear 25 complaints about then Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams. The officer found her guilty of 15 of the violations – one of which rose to the level of criminal prosecution.

Based on the officer’s report, the council voted in July 2011 to oust Williams from the board. She also cannot seek office for five years from that time.

“Karen-Brandee Williams didn’t just face removal, she was prosecuted,” he said. “Tracy Graham Lawson is a very aggressive prosecutor and has been to Forest Park several times. If Forest Park is governed by state ethics, there won’t be free rein for anyone to go willy-nilly with the law.”

Lockhart said the bottom line is that elected officials shouldn’t have to worry about losing their seats because they aren’t popular with the rest of the board.

“The district attorney’s office, that’s where the real penalties are,” he said. “My recommendation is we follow the state ethics. We shouldn’t have to worry about our seat because an election went one way or another.”

However, council members seemed hesitant to make such an important change in the way the city has conducted business for so long. McCord asked for time to review the state’s ethics code and Lockhart told her she could during the break between the 6 p.m. work session and the 7 p.m. regular meeting.

State law sets a high bar to recall an elected official and it’s not unusual to see such efforts fail. According to state law, a recall petition must be signed by 30 percent of the voters who were registered in the target’s ward at the time of the target’s most recent election. The signers must live in the targeted ward. If that number is reached, the recall query can be placed on a ballot and voted on by the members of the target’s ward.

The target must have served at least six months in office and must be more than six months from the end of term.

Attempts in 2008 to recall Clayton County school board members amidst the district’s accreditation crisis failed because opponents couldn’t garner enough support.