Alpharetta is considering placing what amounts to a three-month gag order on ethics complaints lodged against those up for re-election this year.
It’s a bad idea.
The City Council heard a report May 15 from City Attorney Molly Esswein that proposes amending the ethics ordinance to prohibit acceptance of ethics complaints against incumbents during the three months preceding a municipal election. This includes a primary or the general election.
Politics can be a nasty business, even at the local level. Look back at the 2021 Alpharetta City Council elections. There were a lot of sleazy allegations thrown around, none substantiated, so none worth printing then or now.
An ethics complaint, legitimate or not, can bludgeon a campaign. It can also tarnish the reputation of a decent public servant.
There is no shortage of examples, but let’s consider Milton.
Before the ink had dried on its new city charter in 2006, two council members faced ethics charges, which were dismissed by the city ethics board. The charges were then refiled before the state Ethics Commission.
The mayor also was targeted with a campaign-related state ethics complaint.
And it didn’t stop there. One member of the Milton ethics board filed an ethics complaint against another member of the ethics board.
Council meetings devolved into accusations pitting one, two or three councilmembers hurling charges against the others.
Even after hiring an organizational psychologist and holding two team-building sessions, the Milton City Council was still a mess, and there was no end in sight.
After five ethics complaints in its first three years, Mayor Joe Lockwood pronounced it madness, saying each case was politically motivated.
Finally, Milton City Attorney Ken Jarrard – donning his red bow tie for maximum effect – suggested the city ditch its resident-based ethics board and name three out-of-town attorneys to preside over ethics cases.
While the measure didn’t bury many hatchets in the city’s verdant pastures, governing in Milton gained traction and began operating.
Around the same time Milton was finally getting its sea legs, the young city of Dunwoody struggled with ethics warfare of its own.
Five years after it incorporated in 2007, the entire City Council faced an ethics complaint from a resident before the ethics board even had a set of bylaws on how to operate.
That sparked another series of ethics complaints.
The city attorney was forced out for allegedly leaking closed-meeting information. He took a lie detector test to disprove the charge, but it didn’t matter. A councilwoman spent more than a year defending herself from the same charge. She countered with an ethics complaint against a member of the ethics board and the attorney for the city. And for good measure, she filed ethics complaints against the mayor, City Council and the city manager.
The complaints were withdrawn after the city rang up more than $100,000 in legal fees.
Chuck it up to growing pains, I guess, but local government can be a squalid arena.
Even with this sordid history, though, it makes little sense to do what Alpharetta is considering. As proposed, the measure would provide a three-month blanket immunity to an incumbent seeking re-election.
Most striking of all is that it would deprive the electorate knowledge of possible malfeasance in a candidate they may support. It’s striking because Alpharetta City Attorney Molly Esswein is an associate at Jarrard & Davis law firm, which provides government counsel throughout north Metro Atlanta.
Ken Jarrard is Forsyth County Attorney and Milton City Attorney. Angela Davis is Cherokee County Attorney.
Both speak throughout the state at law conferences on the Georgia Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Act.
I’ve had my tussles with Ken Jarrard over government disclosure of information. He’s a tough hombre. But one thing I am certain of is that he or his firm would never introduce a policy to shield government officials from legitimate criticism unless they were directed to do so by their client.
That narrows things down.
This fall, Alpharetta has a mayor and three seats on the City Council up for election.
My sense is that one or more of these incumbents fear a smear is near.
This could all be avoided if Alpharetta adopted the same tack as Milton took 10 years ago. Get outside lawyers to evaluate ethics complaints and be rid of this silliness. That provision is also part of the revised ordinance Alpharetta is considering, and it should be enough.
Elected officials should be accountable through their entire terms. They deserve not one second of immunity from facing ethics charges.