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Complaints against ethics board aired
Visting judge weighs matter
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Forsyth County News

A visiting judge reviewed complaints filed against the Forsyth County Board of Ethics during a hearing Friday.

Senior Judge Robert Struble heard from the board’s counsel and chairman as well as resident Terence Sweeney, who lodged the complaints against the panel's five members and one alternate Dec. 16.

Sweeney contends the members violated the rules of the ethics board ordinance by holding meetings at unauthorized days, times and places in 2011.

In early January, the board directed its attorney, Logan Butler, to file for declaratory judgment on the matter in Forsyth County Superior Court.

Both local judges, Jeffrey Bagley and David Dickinson, recused themselves from the matter.

Struble agreed to take up the complaints in late March, since the ethics board members could not hear the allegations against themselves.

Following the hearing, he said Butler would have 10 days to respond with a brief and comments on evidence, while Sweeney would receive 10 days following that before any decision would be issued.

Sweeney, while on the witness stand, suggested the outcome he’d like to see.

“The ultimate findings, I believe, should be to disband the ethics board, overturn all the actions at unlawful meetings and [issue] a reprimand letter,” he said.

His complaints contend the alleged violations involve the July 8 and 12 and Nov. 30 meetings.

According to a complaint, the board did not vote in its July 8 session to establish a time for the special called meeting July 12, as required in the ethics ordinance.

The Nov. 30 meeting occurred on the fifth Wednesday of the month, rather than the required date for regular meetings "on the second Tuesday in the months of May and November."

County commissioners amended the ordinance on Sept. 1 to those dates, and then again on March 15 to provide flexibility within the months set forth.

The commission also removed the requirement that ethics board meetings must be held in the commissioners' public hearing room.

Instead, it ruled, meetings "shall be conducted in a room supplied by the board of commissioners."

The July 8 and 12 meetings were not held in the public hearing room, which is also addressed in the complaint.

Butler, who said he represented the board and not the individuals named in the complaints, questioned Chairman Bob Charles on the witness stand at the judge’s direction of the hearing’s procedures.

Charles said the board always followed the requirements of the Georgia Open Meetings Act in providing public notice for the date, location and time of the meetings.

The meetings were never scheduled with the intent to hide them from the public, Charles said, and no one was ever absent due to not receiving notice.

“We think [that’s] critical, especially in light of which board we are,” he said. “Public confidence in the board of ethics is very important.”

Charles discussed some difficulties presented in the version of the ethics ordinance as it read in July, as not giving the board the flexibility it needed.

Setting a time for a meeting by majority vote, he said, “created a circular situation” in which the board couldn’t call a meeting to vote on the time.

He also discussed the complexities of scheduling conflicts for the board’s volunteer members while meeting the time requirements of processing complaints.

Sweeney did not ask any questions of Charles.

When it was his time to speak, Sweeney read from an affidavit he filed with the court Thursday on the failures of the ethics board members to follow the county ethics ordinance in filing their responses to the complaints.

Sweeney said the members did not submit the required attachments, including affidavits of personal knowledge, facts admissible in evidence and supporting documents referenced in the responses.

He noted that the responses by each member were the same, though they filed as individuals.

“To the extent that the words ‘substantial compliance’ are mentioned [in the responses],” he said, “it would be noted that the failure to meet on the designated times or locations are complete, total and ‘substantial compliance’ failures.”