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Ethics change targets frivolous complaints
Filers would be held accountable
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Forsyth County News

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Visit www.forsythco.com and click on "Proposed Amendment to Forsyth County Ethics Ordinance" for more information and to review the proposed changes.

Forsyth County commissioners are considering some changes to the county code of ethics that are aimed at curbing frivolous complaints.

The new language, under a heading titled "wrongful use of this ordinance," calls for some possible penalties, including costs, public reprimand or criminal prosecution for perjury.

If the ethics board determined a complaint was frivolous, it could recommend the county commission impose such punishment.

Two public hearings, the first of which is set for Thursday, are required before commissioners can approve the change.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said the local ethics board was formed in 2002 "to give individuals and citizens and even government officials a forum to assert allegations of unethical conduct if they believed they had occurred."

He said the proposed change targeting frivolous complaints is similar to measures in other jurisdictions, including nearby Milton.

According to the draft, those found guilty could be "responsible for payment of all costs and all attorney's fees associated with the handling and processing of the ethics complaint." That person would then have 30 days to settle up.

The ethics board would consider six factors -- including timing, publicity and motives -- in determining whether a complaint could be considered frivolous.

During a previous commission work session, Jarrard said the ethics board would need to find "clear and convincing evidence" of wrongful use, which is held to a high standard.

"It would have to be pretty overwhelming evidence before someone would get tagged," he said.

Commissioner Patrick Bell, who has come out in support of the plan, said it stems from concerns over possible abuses of ethics complaints.

"It's an accountability-type thing," Bell said. "We have so many people that, in my mind, have abused the ethics law and open records requests. Taxpayers continue to have to foot the bill for this."

Complaints currently cost the county money for processing costs, Jarrard said.

Bell said an elected official defending himself against a complaint often hires an attorney, which cost one commissioner about $3,000 last year.

Under the current law, there are no repercussions for filing a complaint and no requirement to tell the truth or base a complaint on fact, he said. Those allegations often receive media attention.

If approved, the changes would place "accountability" on the filer, Bell said.

"If you're going to file an ethics complaint, you better believe it's accurate and it's truthful and it's not just because you're mad at a commissioner because he won't vote on something you like," he said.

The proposed changes, as written for public review, would also attempt to "to discourage the filing of ethic complaints solely for political purposes."

To that end, complaints could not be filed against a candidate for elected county office between the qualifying period and election.

In 2010, an election year, three complaints were filed with the board of ethics. The board reviewed two of them, though neither went to a hearing. The third was withdrawn.

In 2009, the board received no complaints.