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Appeal tripped up
Man didn't get judge's signature
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Forsyth County News

A Superior Court judge has dismissed a petition to appeal a Forsyth County Board of Ethics’ decision due to a technical issue made by the man seeking the hearing.

Senior Superior Court Judge Hugh W. Stone granted the motion to dismiss Wednesday, as requested by counsel for Forsyth County, the ethics board and Brian Tam.

The board of ethics on July 12 dismissed a complaint filed by resident Terence Sweeney, who contended that Commissioners Pete Amos, Patrick Bell and Tam had violated the open meetings act by assembling a quorum in February 2011 without giving public notice.

Sweeney appealed to the Forsyth County Superior Court on Aug. 11, maintaining that the ethics board failed to properly review the evidence and asking a judge to direct it to reconsider the matter.

Sweeney, who represented himself in the legal matter, met the 30-day window to file a petition for writ of certiorari, but did not obtain the required signature of a judge.

Both Judge Jeffrey Bagley and David Dickinson recused themselves from the case in September, which followed the 30 days.

"If that sanction is not obtained … it’s basically a nullity and subject to be dismissed," Stone said in his decision. "It’s unfortunate that you find yourself in this situation … Hopefully if this arises again, you’ll get it squared away."

Sweeney said he could not get either of the county’s two Superior Court judges to respond to requests made at their offices.

"Nobody in the county would give me any information, which left me no judge at all," he said. "I’m asking you to offer the sanction."

Stone said he could not sanction the petition following the 30-day filing period.

The judges’ code of ethics, Stone said, would have required them to tell the petitioner if they were disqualified from signing the sanction and refer the person to another judge.

"I don’t think they can refuse to sanction it," he said. "Even if you believe they’ll [disqualify themselves], you’ve got to take it to them."

Following the decision, Sweeney said it was a shame the ethics board’s ruling would not be reviewed due to "pro se error."

He filed the suit following both the ethics board’s dismissal and a letter from the Georgia Attorney General’s office to Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard asking the county to draft corrective measures.

According to the letter, it has been made clear that "to conduct public business in such a way as to avoid meeting the quorum requirements of the open meetings act is a violation of the act itself … Specifically, this office views four council members meeting, together or in twos, with a design team to conduct public business without giving proper notice to the public, to be a violation of the act."

The letter was in response to a complaint, involving the same incident, that Sweeney filed with the office in April.

On Feb. 3, 2011, Sweeney saw the commissioners at the same time in Cumming City Hall for what Bell has maintained were separate and informal discussions with Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt.

Bell has said he was entering the building as Amos and Tam were leaving and that Commissioner Todd Levent arrived about 20 minutes later.

No official action was taken during any of the talks, which reportedly dealt with the extension of the 1-cent sales tax.

Since receiving the letter from the attorney general’s office, Jarrard has directed county officials to use caution to ensure all meetings and assemblies are conducted in full compliance with the law.

Sweeney has filed a complaint in December against the ethics board, alleging the five regular and one alternate members violated the open meetings act during their July hearing and November regular meeting in assembling unauthorized days, times and places.

The matter is pending in Superior Court, as a judge is expected to direct the board on how to proceed with a complaint against itself.

Both Bagley and Dickinson have also recused themselves from this matter.