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Ethics board status needs clarifying
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Forsyth County News


In its efforts to address perceived problems in the ordinance that created the county’s ethics board, the county commission seems to have cobbled together a poorly designed fix that creates more issues than it solves.

Ethics board members, facing the unusual situation of having to deal with a complaint filed against themselves rather than others, were clearly taken aback last week when they were advised that recent changes in their governing ordinance meant they would have to hire their own attorneys and file individual responses to the complaint, rather than depending on the ethics board’s attorney to do so.

If in fact that is the case, as the attorney for the ethics board suggests, it creates a ludicrous situation that will have to be remedied if the county is going to have an ethics board at all.

The board is being challenged due to its failure to properly adhere to dates and location for meetings. With all the problems county governmental entities have had over the past year in adhering to established legal mandates for meeting times and announcements, you’d think such issues would have been resolved by now. Apparently not.

According to an interpretation of the newest revision of the ethics board ordinance, the current complaint means that individual members of the board should engage their own attorneys to respond to the accusation. If the accusation is dismissed, proved to be unfounded or a “wrongful use” of the process, the county will reimburse the members for legal expenses up to $10,000. With five board members and an alternate, that’s six lawyers responding to the same complaint, with a potential legal cost of $60,000 to the county if they win.

Please, someone interject some basic logic into this equation.

On the surface it looks as though the ethics board is guilty as charged. It apparently did not meet on the right days and in the right place. As there is no suggestion of any ethical misconduct as a result of the errant meeting schedule, the violation is a very technical one that doesn’t need to be argued in any court of law by anyone at any price. 

As members of the ethics board noted, if they are to be expected to hire lawyers to respond to complaints on an individual basis, those willing to serve on the purely voluntary board for which there is no compensation are going to be few and far between.

County commissioners need to take another run at revising the ethics board ordinance to make clear which, if any, legal liabilities rest with the members individually, and which are those of the board as a whole and can be handled by the board’s attorney. They also need to provide discretion on meeting dates — the ethics board is only mandated to meet twice a year, unless there is a need for action — to avoid such issues in the future.

The complainant in this case, erstwhile political activist, occasional candidate and frequent gadfly Terence Sweeny, would do county taxpayers a favor by withdrawing his complaint and allowing the county to revise its ordinances into something that makes sense. He has made his point, and there is nothing to be gained by pursuing the issue into litigation, unless you are one of the potential lawyers who would be billing the county.

The county commission, for its part, has to try again to write a procedural ordinance for ethics board that makes some semblance of sense — common sense, which sometimes seems to be as rare as hen’s teeth in the world of government.