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Warm response to proposed ethics changes
Outside lawyers would fill panel
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Forsyth County News

Forsyth County commissioners received largely positive responses on plans to revamp the ethics board during a Thursday meeting.

The first of two public hearings on the issue drew three speakers who supported the concept of bringing in out-of-county attorneys to rule on local ethics complaints.

Instead of having five county residents appointed to the panel, the model would change to a pool of outside lawyers to be called in on an as-needed basis, Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard said.

“This is a fairly substantial modification to our code that will disband the ethics board as we know it,” Jarrard said.

The changes would involve creating a pool of nine to 15 qualified attorneys each year, and randomly selecting three if a complaint or request for an advisory opinion is filed, he said.

The code proposal reviewed Thursday also included a per-day payment for service, which would be determined later by commissioners.

The “wrongful use” provision, which states that the filer of a frivolous complaint is responsible for repaying costs and fees associated with it, is removed in the version under consideration.

Also, the board’s ability to launch investigations as necessary was taken out, since the panel would not be a permanent body, Jarrard said.

To his knowledge, Jarrard said the ethics panel has never exercised that option.

Brant Meadows, a former planning commissioner, generally supported the changes, but expressed concern about removing the group’s investigative ability.

“The panel should be able to make a determination [like] technical errors do prevent us from moving ahead, but we see something and we want to investigate further,” Meadows said. “Then their hands would be tied.”

Dan Wolf, who served on the county’s first ethics board, said he saw the appeal in the proposed changes, which seek to remove potential local bias from the process.

He also questioned whether having two county residents on the panel could add value.

“I wonder if perhaps that brings some local wisdom,” Wolf said. “As I say that, I realize that we’re trying to separate local, undue influence from an ethics issue, so there’s a downside to that.”

Commissioner Patrick Bell, who proposed the changes to the ordinance, said he felt having “disinterested” people hearing the complaints keeps the ruling consistent with the evidence.

To that effect, Bell also said the investigative powers give the board the ability to be a “police panel,” rather than a jury.
A second hearing on the proposed changes is set for Oct. 4, after which the commission can vote on the ordinance.