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Changes to ethics ordinance further revised
Board removes elections ban
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Forsyth County News


Forsyth County commissioners eliminated some of the proposed changes to the local ethics ordinance during a work session Tuesday.

The decision, which was approved 5-0, means the ethics board will still accept complaints during election campaigns and filers will not face criminal prosecution for perjury if a complaint is ruled frivolous.

The proposed changes could be made final next month, after one additional public hearing is held.

Tuesday's decision followed the first public hearing last week, during which seven people spoke against some of the possible changes outlined in the new section titled "wrongful use of this ordinance."

"In light of some of the public comments the board of commissioners heard that evening, I think it's only fair that we revisit the code and let the board have an opportunity to discuss it," said County Attorney Ken Jarrard.

Based on those concerns, Commissioner Patrick Bell suggested the perjury penalty be removed.

Bell personally liked the measure to "hold people accountable," but the language is not "his baby," as he said some have been led to believe.

As currently worded, anyone who files a frivolous complaint could still face penalties, including public reprimand and repaying costs and fees.

Jim Boff pushed to remove any and all penalties, but gained no support from his fellow commissioners.

Bell also suggested the provision barring complaints during elections be struck, since the measure could only prevent complaints against incumbents.

Complaints against challengers must be filed with the state, while those against incumbents fall under the county's code.

Jarrard said other jurisdictions, such as nearby Johns Creek, do include the elections provision.

Another worry raised by speakers, Jarrard said, was the language determining how a complaint would be considered a "wrongful use."

"This was drafted with an idea of it being difficult to make this finding," he said.

Jarrard pointed to the wording that a "complaint is not frivolous if the complainant reasonably believes that facts exist to support the claim and ... the complaint is valid under this ordinance."

He added that the way the board would determine the evidence was clear enough is no different than "in the civil and criminal context."

"It's not perfect, but it's the system we live by," Jarrard said.

In the section about penalties, the proposed language requires a unanimous vote by the ethics board to require the complainant to pay all the fees associated with a frivolous complaint.

An unanimous vote would be hard to come by, Bell said, and offers another layer of protection.

Speakers also have questioned how the penalties would be imposed.

If the ethics board were to determine a complaint was frivolous, it could recommend the county commission impose punishment.

Jarrard said if a commissioner was the target of a complaint, he would have to recuse himself from the vote.