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Another try at improving ethics code
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Forsyth County News

The Forsyth County Commission is looking at ways to change its ethics ordinance and possibly the composition of the board of ethics created to review and rule on complaints filed under the ordinance.


Over the past several years, the ethics policy has been a bit of a moving target, often tweaked and changed as imperfections become obvious. Now it is in the shop for more repairs.

In discussing the board of ethics last week, commissioners voted to suggest changing its membership so as to replace local volunteers with a panel of out-of-county attorneys who could hear complaints as needed. The proposal cannot become final until proposed revisions of the ethics ordinance undergo public hearings and another vote of the commission, but the idea is one that has some appeal.

It is virtually impossible to craft an ethics ordinance that can cover every conceivable issue that might arise as county residents question the behavior of their elected officials and public employees. And those violations that can be defined often are subjective in nature, so that where one person sees a violation, another may not.

As a result, asking local appointees, who serve purely on a volunteer basis, to take on the task of interpreting whether other county residents, some of whom may be friends or neighbors, have acted improperly is a weighty task and one not easily achieved.

It is the subjective nature of ethics that makes it so difficult to adjudicate. What, for example, truly constitutes a conflict of interest? Taken to an extreme, one could argue that every county official who pays a water bill at home has a conflict in voting on water rates. Sadly, there are those in the community who believe such extreme interpretations should be the standard.

Interpretation of ethical behavior most often occurs in an environment where everything is painted in shades of gray and little is black and white, which explains why some of those who have agreed to serve a term on the board of ethics prefer not to be reappointed.

Consider too that there is a certain small but vocal group in the community whose sole purpose in life seems to be capturing some official in an alleged ethical misstep, regardless of how small or innocent, and then making it sound as though the county’s soul is destined to burn for an eternity as a result.

Maybe having outsiders offer their perspective on alleged ethical violations, and removing any hint that the local ethics board has some pre-existing prejudice that prohibits a fair review of complaints, would help to quiet the cacophony of sound created by those who live to create mountains from molehills.

We look forward to seeing the final recommendations on a revision of the existing ethics ordinance. At first blush, the idea of an outside panel would seem to have some merit.