FORSYTH COUNTY — Three Forsyth County elected officials have denied the accusations made against them in ethics complaints filed by two local residents.
Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper and County Commissioners Pete Amos and Cindy Mills have each had a complaint lodged against them by Robert Rorke. A second complaint was filed against Mills by Ann Adams.
The county ethics board has 60 days from the day the complaints were filed to make a decision. The first ruling likely will come early this month on Piper’s matter.
The board is a pool of about a dozen out-of-county attorneys, who are selected at random when a complaint is filed or an advisory opinion sought.
In his complaint against Piper, Rorke contends the sheriff acted in his official capacity and used county assets while endorsing a candidate for state Senate and county commission.
Rorke included a campaign promotion for commission candidate David Hole in which the two men were shown shaking hands in front of a sheriff’s patrol car.
Rorke’s complaint requested the ethics panel “consider this complaint or request an advisory opinion.”
Hole ended up losing the Republican primary election to incumbent District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent, who secured a second term.
In his response, Piper maintains that all violations are without merit, adding Rorke didn’t disclose his personal bias against the sheriff.
“This complaint is rooted in that bias and is a clear effort to harass Sheriff Piper,” the response said, adding the claims are “frivolous, groundless in fact and law and vexatious.” He also questions the ethics board’s jurisdiction to hear the matter.
Rorke contends Piper violated the Hatch Act by acting in his official capacity for the endorsement, however Piper’s response said the act specifically allows an elected official to endorse candidates.
“Before endorsing these candidates, Sheriff Piper sought legal counsel regarding his ability, as sheriff, to endorse other political candidates and determined that his endorsement would not violate any laws,” Piper’s response stated, specifically noting the law applies to employees, not individuals holding elected office.
In his complaint against Amos, the District 1 representative who also chairs the county commission, Rorke requested a quick response, saying critical votes are pending.
“These votes could easily ‘change the course’ of recent and future history in Forsyth County and not for the better,” according to the complaint.
“At the end of the day, I believe the ETHICS MEMBERS (sic) should ask the [county commissioners] to suspend any voting on planning/zoning issues until this complaint is addressed to the satisfaction of the Citizens (sic).”
The complaint contends that Amos violated his oath of office, specifically in his vote to approve a project to widen Castleberry Road.
About six weeks after that vote, Rorke noted, a zoning request was made regarding one of Amos’ properties within three miles from the affected stretch of Castleberry, calling it a conflict of interest.
“Mr. Amos should have removed himself from any discussion regarding the sale/zoning and other necessary official activities surrounding the pending transaction,” the complaint said, pointing to Amos’ actions as latent intimidation. “This is undue influence of his position and he does not have the best interest of the county in mind.”
Amos, who is in the process of submitting an official response, said the Castleberry project began with a 1-cent sales tax program in 2002, long before he was elected to the commission. He added that land was bought for the project by 2009, which also was before Amos began his service.
“Past commissioners had the foresight to have this road ready to go,” he said. “You’d have to go way back to before I was on the board. It’s been in the transportation plan for years, it’s been designed for years and I’m just implementing the plan the previous commissioners had.”
Rorke’s complaint against both Amos and Mills, who has represented District 4 on the commission since 2013, points to the county’s ordinance regarding disclosure of interest and abstention to avoid conflicts of interest.
The ordinance essentially states that any commissioners with financial or personal interest in proposed legislation or action should both disclose that interest and abstain from conversation or voting on any items that could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
Since taking office in 2011, Amos said he has recused himself from several votes regarding anything in which he’s had a financial interest.
Amos went on to say that he’s consulted with the county attorney to make sure he was handling situations correctly, adding the paperwork regarding his land was filed long before the Castleberry discussion.
“I’m wide open. I’m totally open,” he said. “I’ve never tried to hide anything or do anything I’m not supposed to.”
Rorke’s complaint against Mills was regarding her work in real estate as the possible agent tied to a Bryan Properties’ parcel on Castleberry Road.
“Because it was mysteriously taken down four days before the vote in favor of the widening, we no longer can prove that Cindy Jones Mills was the listing agent for Bryan Properties, but it is believed she was and that the parcel is still on the market,” Rorke’s complaint states. “Whatever the ‘truth’ is, it is being hidden from the Citizens, BUT (sic) we have a right to know.”
According to Rorke, Mills’ vote in favor of the Castleberry widening project should be declared null and void and she should be reprimanded.
“I urge the ethics board to take the ethical and moral actions by removing Cindy Jones Mills so that she never has a similar opportunity to come up in front of her ever again.”
But Mills, who is working on a response to both complaints, said she has never been attached to a listing.
“I am an agent, not a broker, and so I’ve never had a financial interest or any type of gain in any way,” she said. “My broker had a listing on the part of Castleberry that was already four lanes. But that listing expired three ... years ago. The property they have questioned is in the city [limits of Cumming].”
Adams’ complaint against Mills was on a separate issue dating back to a planning board meeting that the commissioner attended June 5.
In it, she takes exception with Mills’ behavior and abrupt departure from the meeting, which was reportedly for a bathroom break.
However, the crux of the complaint involves Mills’ actions after the meeting, when she reportedly posted a comment on her Facebook page June 6 regarding an item discussed during the public hearing.
According to Adams’ complaint, “Not only were her comments inappropriate, but Ms. Mills ‘liked’ many comments by her friends. Ms. Mills own comments, as well as her ‘likes on Facebook, certainly give the appearance that she has formed an opinion on this zoning before hearing all of the facts.”
Mills countered that she was cautious about her post on Facebook, adding that her point was strictly on the process of voting and that individuals weren’t on a level playing field.
“I never said how I was voting or how a vote should be, I talked about the process,” Mills said.
As for “liking” comments made to her post by friends and constituents, Mills said she likes all comments she reads, just not necessarily the content.
“It’s a nice thing to do. It lets them know I read their post, that I saw it and I appreciated them taking the time to write something,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I like what they wrote, it just meant that I saw it and acknowledged it.
“With all the things we have to deal with in Forsyth County ... transportation, strategic planning for growth and the drug summits I’m heavily involved in ... those issues are way more important than talking about going to the bathroom or what I wrote on Facebook. It’s utterly ridiculous. It’s just sad.”