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A question of ethical frivolity
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Forsyth County News


You have to be careful tossing around a word like “frivolous.” What one person perceives as frivolous may in fact be the bedrock of philosophical belief for another.

Many today consider the “birthers” complaint against the presidency of Barack Obama to be frivolous, yet to others the issue goes to the core of the constitutionality of his presidency.

Odds are the first person to hear that President Nixon had knowledge of the break-in at the Watergate hotel thought it to be a frivolous allegation. Same with the first allegation that President Clinton would have an improper relationship with a White House intern young enough to be his daughter.

Funny how those frivolous complaints panned again. Then again, on second thought, not so funny at all.

The county’s board of commissioners wants to change the existing ethics ordinance to crack down on those who file “frivolous” complaints, especially those that clearly seem to be politically motivated. If the proposed changes are approved, the revamped ordinance would allow the county to collect expenses and attorneys fees from those filing such complaints, clearly a punitive measure meant to stop the flood of baseless complaints overwhelming the local ethics board.

How big of a flood, you might say? Three complaints, total, in 2010. None in 2009.

It would seem this is a solution in search of a problem.

It is understandable that county officials would look for a means of protecting those in the employment of the county from meaningless complaints geared more toward embarrassment or political gain than actual misconduct. There is no doubt that such have been filed in the past, and will be again.

But they must use caution in making sure they don’t erect such walls of protection around those on the public payroll as to intentionally intimidate the public from making valid complaints. As proposed, the policy changes are too stringent and too broad.

A different tactic  would be to empower someone — perhaps the chairman of the ethics board in conjunction with legal counsel, or an independent hearing officer from outside the county — with the authority to immediately evaluate the merits of complaints when they are filed to determine which merit a hearing of the full board.

Those that fail to meet the very specific criteria for complaint already in the ordinance could be rejected outright, with an appeals process to the full board that required production of sufficient credible evidence to force a hearing.

A quicker resolution to complaints also would be a welcome change. Under the existing policy, the ethics board does not have to hear a complaint for 60 days after it is filed, which creates the potential for two months of publicity for a complaint that may have no merit at all.

In any case, commissioners have to weigh the potential of creating an ethics procedure that punishes and intimidates private individuals against the potential damage done to those in public employ by complaints lacking in merit. And that decision is one that is not frivolous.