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Officials to respond separately
Ethics board changes course on complaints
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Forsyth County News

Wreck snarls traffic

By: Jim Dean

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Members of the Forsyth County Board of Ethics will provide their own responses and legal counsel to complaints filed against them.

The board came to the new conclusion Wednesday after revisiting some votes taken a week earlier.

In the Dec. 28 meeting, the board reviewed the ethics complaints filed against its five members and one alternate.

Resident Terence Sweeney filed the six complaints Dec. 16. He contends the members violated the rules of the ethics board ordinance by holding meetings at unauthorized days, times and places.

Sensing a conflict of interest in ruling on those complaints, the board directed its attorney to file responses for them.

But on Wednesday, Logan Butler, the board’s counsel, said recent additions to the ethics ordinance prohibit him from filing responses for the individual members.

The wrongful use provision, which commissioners added in September, includes a paragraph stating that the county will reimburse county officials for dismissed complaints relating to "conduct arising out of their official duties," Butler said.

"The opinion I’m getting is that kind of creates a niche procedure in that under an ethics complaint, it would be up to the board members to seek counsel or file things pro se, but not to have the board’s attorney do it," he said.

The amount specified in the ordinance provides that up to $10,000 could be reimbursed, which could "get expensive for the county" to refund six members if the complaint were to be dismissed, Butler said.

Board member Tim Perry said the ordinance may not have envisioned a scenario like this.

"We acted in the capacity of the board of ethics, which is a volunteer position and we are appointed," Perry said. "Now we have to pay an attorney because we came to a called meeting which we volunteered for. I just have a hard time with that."

Chairman Robert Charles said the board should consider asking commissioners to review the ordinance.

"If we’re going to expect to have any reasonable pool of volunteers to be appointees for a completely uncompensated board, we’re probably going to have to look into how that’s written," Charles said. "I think it would lose any desirability for someone to serve potentially."

The board initially did not opt to rescind the previous motion the attorney filed for members. Following a more than 30-minute closed session, however, members voted 5-0 to do so.

Butler said the other previous vote asking him to file for declaratory judgment from Forsyth County Superior Court will go forth as requested.

The court is being asked to rule on who should hear the complaint.

Also Wednesday, the board ratified some motions made Dec. 28 that had received seconds from Ernest Turner, an inactive alternate member, who sat in for Perry during a July hearing.

Sweeney did not attend the meeting Wednesday.

His complaints contend the alleged violations involve the July 8, July 12 and Nov. 30 ethics board 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 set forth those dates for regular meetings and remove a convoluted schedule.

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.