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Complaints dismissed against ethics board
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Forsyth County News

A judge has dismissed complaints against the members of the Forsyth County Board of Ethics that contended they had violated the rules of their governing ordinance.

Visiting Senior Judge Robert Struble ruled that the board’s meetings in question “were proper, fair, and not in violation of any ethical standards.”

Terence Sweeney lodged the complaints against the panel’s five members and one alternate on Dec. 16.

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

Struble heard the complaints in late April, since the ethics board members could not hear the allegations against themselves and requested guidance from the court.

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

In a decision dated Monday, Struble wrote: “There is no evidence that the board of ethics either established a meeting date, time or place with any intent to harm, prejudice or benefit anyone, or that such action … benefitted or harmed any citizen of Forsyth County.”

Sweeney said Friday that his complaint was not based on the Georgia Open Meetings Act, as Struble’s decision referenced.

“My complaint was based on them not following their own rules,” he said.

While he didn’t foresee any further action on this issue, Sweeney said he would continue to watch the ethics board closely.

Sweeney also said he didn’t envision many more complaints being filed, due to changes county commissioners have made to the ethics ordinance.

As a result of the changes, people can be penalized for complaints deemed a “wrongful use” of the code.

Another change, made in September, allows for officials or employees to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees if complaints are dismissed.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said Friday that the dismissal of this complaint would allow ethics board members to request reimbursement for attorney’s expenses up to $10,000, if they hired personal counsel.

In this case, it was not clear at the hearing whether ethics board members had retained counsel.

Following the hearing, both the ethics board’s attorney and Sweeney were asked to file briefs.

In his brief, Sweeney raised the issue of attorney’s fees incurred by the county for this complaint and another one he filed in 2011.

He noted both issues involved government not following its own rules, and the expenses totaled about $25,000.

“If the citizens have to continue to pay to keep their own government in line and not get reimbursed it will never work,” he said.

Struble did not address that issue since it was not raised in the hearing.