Forsyth County commissioners adopted fewer changes to its local ethics ordinance Thursday than proposed after it received only opposing feedback in two public hearings.
The most contested addition to the law, a section titled “Wrongful use of this ordinance,” states the filer of a frivolous complaint is responsible for repaying costs and fees associated with it.
Of the three penalties originally proposed, repayment was the only one adopted.
The board approved the new version of the ordinance in a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Jim Boff opposed. Commissioners Todd Levent and Pete Amos were absent.
Since the first public hearing in March, commissioners removed some of the prohibitions and punishments originally suggested.
At a later work session, the board removed language prohibiting people from filing complaints during election time and the possibility of criminal prosecution for perjury.
During Thursday night’s vote, commissioners also struck the possibility of public reprimand as a punishment, following advice from speaker Emily Crabb, who said the language was too vague.
Crabb suggested that the board remove all proposed penalties from the table, of which Boff was the lone supporter.
She said the language infringed on the rights of the people and pointed to the repayment of fees as a major deterrent.
“Will this threat not suppress the citizens’ constitutional right to petition their government?” Crabb said.
The decision of what’s considered frivolous, she added, will put people “at the mercy of an appointed board.”
As written, the ethics board could consider a range of factors, such as timing, publicity, motives and the relationship between the filer and the official.
If the ethics board determined a complaint was frivolous, it could recommend the county commission take action against the filer.
Resident and former commissioner David Richard agreed that the new section shouldn’t be adopted, but gave a different reason than Crabb.
“What we have here is a solution in search of a problem,” he said.
Resident Gray Smith agreed, noting that only three complaints have been filed in the past two years, none of which proceeded to a full hearing.
“What are you trying to fix?” he asked the board. “Is it that we’re coming up on an election cycle this next year?”
The changes to the ordinance also included some procedural measures, including that complaints be filed with the ethics clerk.
A complaint must also be signed and notarized that the filer has read the ethics ordinance and attests that he or she believes the statements in the complaint are true.