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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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Mills

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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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2 comments
mosesdds: August 26, 2014 11:35 a.m.

Where else can I post this breaking news story but here in a story about ethics?

http://www.northwestgeorgianews.com/associated_press/news/state/cumming-fined-k-for-violating-open-meeting-act/article_70c10294-2d29-11e4-b29e-0017a43b2370.html


mosesdds: August 26, 2014 11:52 a.m.

Let's try again with the full story this time:
Associated Press
Press release

CUMMING FINED $12K FOR VIOLATING OPEN MEETINGS ACT
Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 10:01 am

On August 21, 2014, Judge Robert Adamson ruled in favor of Attorney General Sam Olens in a lawsuit filed in June 2012 against the City of Cumming and Mayor Henry Ford Gravitt for violations of the Open Meetings Act. Judge Adamson ordered the defendants to pay $12,000 in penalties, the highest amount possible under the law. Defendants have also been ordered to pay attorney’s fees in an amount to be determined at a later hearing.

“This ruling is a major victory for government transparency,” said Olens. “Georgians deserve a government that operates openly and honestly. The essence of our democracy is that elected officials are held accountable to the citizens and that citizens are allowed to exercise their rights granted by the First Amendment.”

At a Cumming City Council meeting on April 17, 2012, Mayor Gravitt demanded that citizen Nydia Tisdale cease filming the meeting and subsequently ordered her to leave the meeting. Ms. Tisdale returned to the meeting with another hand held camera and was again told to stop recording the meeting. Georgia’s Open Meetings Act expressly provides that visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.

“My office takes very seriously our responsibility to enforce the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. The actions by the mayor in this circumstance were egregious, and it is essential that he be held responsible for his actions.”

Attorney General Olens is a long-time advocate of open government. In 2012, he championed the first overhaul of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts in over a decade, which was signed into law with sweeping approval by the Georgia General Assembly. The revised sunshine laws are more user-friendly and provide tougher penalties for violations. Additionally, the updated law allows the Attorney General to bring civil actions for violations of the sunshine laws. This lawsuit marks the first civil action brought by the Attorney General under the revised law.

“The Georgia First Amendment Foundation (GFAF) is thrilled to see the ‘new’ open government law in action. Enforcement of the state’s Open Meetings and Records Acts are a critical component of the duties of the Office of the Attorney General, and we are delighted to see access rights preserved. We were particularly pleased by the use of the new civil penalties provisions of the new open government laws, and look forward to seeing more of these types of cases,” said Hyde Post, President of GFAF.



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