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Ethics complaint against commissioner will get hearing

Panel rules points worth exploring

POSTED: August 24, 2014 12:03 a.m.
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CUMMING — Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy J. Mills will face an ethics hearing in regards to two issues raised in a resident’s complaint earlier this summer, although the review board found there wasn’t enough evidence to move forward on other points.

The three-member panel of out-of-town attorneys selected for Friday’s investigatory review — Chuck Gabriel, Heather Stevenson and Amelia Phillips — spent nearly two hours reviewing the complaint filed by Ann Adams and a response by Mills and her attorney, Joey Homans.

In her complaint, Adams contended that Mills acted in a way unbecoming an elected official during a meeting of the county’s planning board earlier this summer.

In her complaint, Adams took exception with Mills’ behavior — which she claimed included “laughing, making inappropriate comments about a planning commissioner, and seemingly viewing the proceedings as a joke.”

She also complained about the official’s “abrupt departure” from the meeting, which in her response Mills said was simply for a bathroom break.

The main crux of Adams’ complaint, however, focused on Mills’ alleged actions after the meeting, when she reportedly posted a comment June 6 on her Facebook page regarding an item discussed during a public hearing at the meeting.

Adams maintained that the post and “liking” of others’ Facebook comments pointed to Mills having established an opinion on the zoning matter, which was scheduled to later come to her as a member of the county commission.

In her response, Mills states she is not a member of the planning board, so her leaving the meeting room had no bearing on the proceedings.

She also denied making inappropriate comments about a planning board member and denies viewing the proceedings as a joke.

She also contends that the allegations are based on Adams’ opinions, not facts.

“Ms. Mills denies behaving unprofessionally and asserts that she properly performs her duties in accord with her oath of office,” the response states.

Friday’s ethics panel review was held to establish if there was enough evidence presented by a credible source to warrant moving forward to a hearing.

The attorneys eventually came to the conclusion that Adams’ complaint boiled down to three questions that could be addressed by a further ethics hearing.

The first, they said, centers around whether decorum equals ethics, while the second focuses on whether Mills’ departure during the meeting “undercut the commission’s work.”

The third item focused on whether Mills’ posting information about the meeting to her Facebook page created a “breach of public trust.”

Ultimately, the panel voted to dismiss any issues around the Facebook posting, saying that Mills has a right to express her personal opinion on a public forum if she chooses.  

“There’s something that just kind of rubs me the wrong way about somebody exercising their free speech right to comment on [a public hearing] and then for us to indicate that somehow they should be sanctioned for it,” Stevenson said.

The panel also reached the conclusion that it might have been an ethics violation had Mills intentionally made statements with misinformation to purposefully mislead the public.

However, they found that there was not enough evidence presented to believe that was the case.

“I don’t think that Ms. Adams has presented enough for us to agree, that to the level of reasonable belief, that these statements [on Facebook] were unethical or intended to undermine the integrity or the public’s trust in the planning commission,” Gabriel said.

As for the questions of decorum equaling ethics and whether Mills’ departure from the meeting caused problems from a procedural standpoint, they believed there was enough evidence to move forward with a hearing on both those issues.

Kathy Echols, clerk to the ethics panel, said she would work with the three attorneys to set a date for the hearing.

There is no time frame in which the hearing must be held under the county’s ethics code.

 

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