According to a recent FCN story (Ethics change targets frivolous complaints), it now appears that commissioners are preparing to chill dissenting voices through the police power of government. The chief proponent, it would appear from the article, is Commissioner Patrick Bell. I’m not surprised.
His proposal could include criminal prosecution in addition to fines and public reprimand. That’s a pretty heavy threat Bell is firing across the bow to any government watchdog. Bell says that the plan stems from concerns over possible abuses of ethics complaints. Concerns of whom? Elected officials like Bell? He further claims that many people have abused the ethics law and open records requests. Interesting claim when it is the open records requests that have led to the dismissal of employees for grossly unprofessional behavior. And what are the actual costs about which he complains? There’s waste in far less important areas than citizens holding officials accountable.
This heavy-handed, big-brother approach is a solution to a problem that doesnt exist. There were only 3 complaints in 2010 (none of which went to a hearing) and 0 complaints in 2009. What this really sounds like is a pre-emptive strike against any whistleblower opposing Bells conduct or his governmental relationships.
Who will decide what constitutes abuse of ethics laws? County Attorney Ken Jarrard assures us that it would have to be pretty overwhelming evidence before someone would get tagged. That subjective determination will be made by — government. Feeling better?
Personally, I think the entire ethics process is a farce. The members on the local and state boards are almost always beholden to the elected officials whose names appear in the complaints. In my view, the ethics process has been used as a straw dog to give timid prosecutors an excuse for failing to pursue criminal prosecutions. We would be better served by abolishing the local ethics board and referring all complaints to the district attorney for consideration.
But the idea that our commissioners, led by Bell, would like to criminally prosecute people for holding them accountable ought to send a chill down our collective spine.