JONESBORO — An outside auditor has found that the Clayton County Board of Ethics did not violate county ethics rules when it decided not to hold a public hearing on a citizen complaint about a controversial Board of Commissioners vote.
The investigation came after local activist Robb Leatherwood filed a complaint with the Ethics Board about the Dec. 18 vote on an item that had, according to Chairman Jeff Turner, been placed on the agenda after the close of business Wednesday, the deadline in county code. Turner made a motion to remove the item from the agenda on that basis, according to BOC minutes and the compliance audit summary.
The item was an appointment to the Development Authority of Clayton County and URA Boards to replace Dr. Aleika Anderson. After some discussion and consultation with County Attorney Jack Hancock, the BOC voted 3-2 to keep the item on the agenda. Commissioner Felicia Franklin Warner moved to appoint Sandra Moses, and Turner seconded. The motion failed. Former commissioner Michael Edmondson then moved to appoint Dr. John Chafin and Commissioner Gail Hambrick seconded. That motion passed.
On July 2, according to the auditor, Ethics Board counsel Jim Ellis “read a board statement into the record of the BOC meeting that found Mr. Leatherwood’s allegation to be true and that the actions of the three commissioners (Edmondson, Hambrick and Sonna Singleton Gregory) blatantly disregarded procedural rules established by the Board of Commissioners.” However, the statement made no “finding or holding of culpability in the respondents” and that there was not “good and sufficient cause” for “a hearing for the determination that a violation occurred.” Instead, the statement recommended an amendment to the county Ethics Code that would “include the ‘conduct’” that had prompted Leatherwood’s complaint.
In response, Gregory placed a resolution on the Aug. 6 BOC agenda “directing the county attorney to evaluate the actions of the Clayton County Ethics Board,” as to whether the Ethics Board had handled Leatherwood’s complaint ethically by not seeking input from the commissioners involved, and “to make recommendations concerning changes to the Ethics Ordinance.” However, Turner moved that a “third-party attorney” be tasked with the job. Gregory seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
The outside auditor, attorney Rory K. Starkey of Hilliard Starkey Law, found that the Ethics Board:
♦ did not determine that Edmondson, Gregory and Hambrick violated county ethics policy;
♦ did not hold a public hearing and did not need to because it had not found “good and sufficient cause” of an ethics violation;
♦ found that the agenda item had been “added after deadline established by County Code”;
♦ “held that the actions of the respondents blatantly disregarded procedural rules and the letter of the county ordinance”;
♦ “recommended that the Ethics Code be amend(ed) to include language that makes the knowing violation of a county ordinance a violation of the Ethics Code.”
According to the summary, “there was an attempt to communicate with former commissioner Michael Edmondson. He was phoned twice; however, the auditor was unable to interview Mr. Edmondson as he referred the auditor to attorney Jack Hancock.”
Asked for comment, Hancock told the News, “I have no knowledge regarding the investigation or the results.”
Edmondson said, “I am not aware of any ethics complaints. I have not been contacted or interviewed or deposed for or in regards to any ethics complaints whatsoever. I am not party to or want to be party to any ethics complaints or other proceedings of the county’s ethics advisory committee. I am not aware of any investigations or findings by the Ethics Advisory Committee. I have not reviewed a BOC agenda or subsequent minutes or videos since prior to 12/31/2018. I am not aware of any BOC agenda items regarding Dr. Chafin’s appointment to the DACC board. I didn’t know that Dr. Chafin was appointed to the DACC. Conceptually, I do agree, however, with the auditor that adding agenda items to an agenda is NOT an ethics violation. I have no further comments.”
Gregory told the News, “I am pleased that the auditor confirmed what we all knew to be true, i.e., that the actions this board took to add an item to the BOC agenda in December of 2018 did not violate the county’s ethics code. Here is an undeniable fact. O.C.G.A. 50-14-1 (The Georgia Open Meetings Act) states that ‘Failure to include on the agenda an item which becomes necessary to address during the course of a meeting shall not preclude considering and acting upon such item.’ Since a local ordinance cannot supersede state law, it is clear that our actions were both ethical and lawful. Why then would the Ethics Board blatantly disregard the facts and choose to publicly suggest Commissioner Hambrick and I had engaged in wrongdoing, when it knew the matter did not come under its purview and state law allowed us to do it? Could the fact that the chair of the Ethics Board (Walter Nix) was defeated by me in the last election have any bearing on that decision? Or, perhaps the fact the complainant (Leatherwood) has made it known he intends to run against Commissioner Hambrick influenced the decision? We are left to wonder.”
In 2014, Nix ran as an independent against Gregory but did not have enough signatures to get on the ballot. As of press time, Leatherwood had not responded to Gregory’s claim that he plans to run against her.
Gregory added, “I plan to ask the BOC to require that when the Ethics Board makes such a (no good cause) determination, it should dismiss the case and make no further comment. Most people wouldn’t think we would need to do that, but clearly with this board, we do.”
The auditor recommended that the Ethics Code be reworded to require the Ethics Board to drop the case without a hearing should no violation exist, adding, “it is worth noting that dismissing a case...would not preclude the Ethics Board from issuing a statement of the type issued concerning (Leatherwood’s complaint).”
Requests for comment from other BOC members were not returned by press time.