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Alpharetta to reexamine Ethics Board procedures

Alpharetta Arts ethics complaint

Alpharetta City Administrator Chris Lagerbloom draws five names from a jar on Sept. 1, to select members for the city’s Board of Ethics. Panel members are qualified local residents, selected at random from a list of 14 potential members and are rotated off the board in between cases.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Following the first hearing held under Alpharetta’s revised 2018 Ethics Ordinance, city officials are pondering some big changes they hope will strengthen and streamline the ethics complaint and hearing process.

At its Nov. 28 meeting, the City Council heard from City Administrator Chris Lagerbloom that the ethics hearing held in October regarding a member of the city’s Arts Commission exposed a number of weaknesses in the ordinance, leading to inconsistencies and procedural lapses.

“Through that process we identified some things that went okay and some things that didn’t quite go so okay, and they didn’t go quite so okay in pretty significant ways,” Lagerbloom said.

City Attorney Molly Esswein said that issues had been identified in how complaints are vetted and filed, how members of the Ethics Board are selected and empaneled, and other related problems.

Esswein also laid out details for how the ethics ordinance could be amended to fix the problems.

The most significant proposed change, Lagerbloom said, would be in the qualifications of future board members, and how members are selected to serve.

“We got to the point of actually having a hearing in this case and had people who weren’t familiar with the hearing process or what was appropriate at a hearing,” Lagerbloom said. “Quite frankly, the question the city attorney had to respond to about, ‘well I can’t find a date on my calendar to make this work, can I change my vote?’”

“That doesn’t work when we have these quasi-judicial sorts of things,” he added.

Ethics Board members are currently chosen at random from a list of citizens appointed by the City Council. But Esswein suggested appointing a board of from 9 to 15 attorneys to sit on the board.

In that scenario, Esswein said they would want to appoint only attorneys with at least five years of experience, three years of civil litigation, with no residence or office in the city and without an existing formal or familial relationship with the city.

“An ethics complaint, it’s very much like a trial, so having a litigator who has experience in how that goes could be beneficial for keeping meetings moving smoothly,” she said.

Nearly all councilmembers said they doubted whether they could find that many attorneys to sit on the Ethics Board. But Esswein said the suggestion was modeled after the ordinance enacted by the City of Milton, which has had success in the past years.

Among the other proposed changes, Esswein said they would also impose a six-month statute of limitations on complaints with provisions for special circumstances, such as in cases where alleged unethical behavior was only discovered long after the fact.

“But if it was done secretively and there was no way they could have found out about it, they have six months from when they knew or should have known about it or could have reasonably found out about that,” she said.

The city could also add a “tolling period” that would prevent an ethics complaint from being brought within two months of an election, she said. In that case, two months would be added to the six-month statute of limitations, so that the complaint could still be brought after the election.

“That prevents ethics complaints from being weaponized,” she said.

Esswein said ethics complaints going forward would have to identify specific violations, would require support from affidavits based on personal knowledge, and would have rules to prevent frivolous use of the ethics complaint process and duplicate complaints.

“The intent here is not to expand the power of the Ethics Board,” she said. “Things need to be done to ensure it can run smoothly regardless of whether we add in the ability to expand any of the powers.”

Some city officials questioned whether having an Ethics Board was even necessary, but generally the council seemed to approve keeping the board with some of the proposed changes.

“I'm pretty comfortable with the process that was brought forward,” Mayor Jim Gilvin said. “I understand not wanting all attorneys. But when I look at the stakes, especially for the people on this dais, I'd want attorneys making those judgments.”

One change proposed by councilmembers was to possibly have a central, legally trained figure like a judge presiding over the Ethics Board.

“I don't think we can use our own city judge in any shape or form sitting on an ethics panel,” Councilman John Hipes said. “However, I don't see what would prevent us from approaching a neighboring jurisdiction judge for them to sit on a panel as part of our procedure.”

“I think structure is needed on the panel with somebody knowledgeable about those matters,” he added.

Several councilmembers also proposed having a separate process for volunteer boards and another for state-mandated and elected boards. In that situation, complaints involving non-mandated boards with lower stakes and impact could be judged internally by city staff and city councilmembers.

“I don't know, the current ordinance needs to really be applicable to all of our board members,” Gilvin said.

No action was taken on the workshop item and no public comments were made.

Lagerbloom said he and Esswein would consider the council’s remarks and return the item for further discussion at a future meeting.

Reach Alexander Popp at 770-847-7404. Follow him on Twitter @Popp2Alex.