Some proposed changes to the Forsyth County ethics ordinance drew criticism from residents during a public hearing Thursday.
A new section, titled "wrongful use of this ordinance," calls for possible penalties for those who file a frivolous complaint with the ethics board.
Possible penalties could include repaying costs and fees, public reprimand or criminal prosecution for perjury.
If the ethics board determined a complaint was frivolous, it could recommend the county commission impose punishment.
Some additional wording would also bar complaints against political candidates between the qualifying period and certification of election results.
Prior to the county commission's hearing, County Attorney Ken Jarrard said officials had received a lot of feedback, particularly on that provision.
They have discussed reducing the window when complaints would not be processed, Jarrard said, perhaps to 60 days before a primary or an election for sitting commissioners.
"This will be something that we can hear citizen comment on, and this may be changed quite a bit," he said.
The commission heard from seven residents during Thursday's hearing, with the elections ban frequently surfacing as an unwelcome change.
One speaker, former Commissioner Dave Richard, said the time restraints violate free speech.
"You don't get to set the time and date of complaints against you," Richard said.
Heather Kolich agreed that enacting a time frame during elections "silences political speech."
Hal Schneider said the election ban on complaints was unnecessary, since "the rest of the ordinance already covers any kind of frivolous or politically motivated complaints."
Schneider also expressed concern about the lack of an appeals process and questioned how the ethics board would determine a complaint was frivolous.
As proposed, the board could consider a range of factors, such as timing, publicity, motives and the relationship between the filer and the official.
"The ethics board should only consider what the complaint says and whether it's legitimate or not," Schneider said.
Ralph Stepp saw a possible conflict in that the commissioners nominate and vote on the ethics members "who then judge them" in the event of an ethics complaint.
Stepp suggested the county change the nominating process.
Richard noted another possible conflict in that the commissioners, who could be targets of an ethics complaint, would be the group to impose the penalties.
"What's to keep that commissioner from proposing a quid pro quo to another commissioner in exchange for a vote for the penalty against that so-and-so who dared to file a complaint against that exalted elected official," he said.
Local political activist David Milum said the ethics board has been flawed to start with, calling it a "three-legged dog" that has since acquired rabies.
"I say rabies because the citizens are going to be scared to death to get anywhere around this stuff," Milum said. "It is prohibitive in every fashion."
Milum said only those "with guts" have previously filed complaints with the ethics board, but the penalties would really discourage an average person from reporting unethical behavior.
Of the speakers, perhaps Emily Crabb stated her opposition to the ordinance most simply.
"It's unconstitutional," Crabb said. "You do not have the right to take my right to petition my government."
The commissioners plan to revisit the matter at a work session Tuesday.