County unveils ethics ordinance draft

CONYERS - Rockdale County released a draft of its proposed ethics ordinance Friday and invited public comment on the document, including setting a hearing for later this month.

The draft is a working "red-line" version of an ordinance that was submitted by Common Cause Georgia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government advocacy group. The county sent the draft by e-mail on Friday to members of the Rockdale County Coalition of Homeowner Associations and Civic Groups and solicited comments and questions.

The proposed ethics ordinance will be the primary topic of discussion at the coalition's next meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at the county's Parker Road facility, located at 1400 Parker Road.

As the name suggests, the coalition is made up of representatives of neighborhood associations and civic groups. It meets quarterly.

The coalition was created by Rockdale County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Middlebrooks as an informal advisory group, but is open to the public, said Rockdale County spokeswoman Julie Mills.

Mills referred to the 16-page document as a "starting point" for developing a county ethics ordinance. Work on the ordinance has continued for more than a year. County Attorney John Nix has been reviewing the ordinance since Common Cause Georgia delivered it to the county in May. The "red line" version shows parts that are recommended for omission and revision.

The majority of the red-line revision corrects punctuation and capitalization of letters. The first significant change from the original document is removal of a clause that restricts a commissioner from acquiring or maintaining a legal interest in or being affected by a formal proposal from the county government.

In the next paragraph, the draft ordinance prohibits the county from entering into a contract for services with a commissioner or business with which the commissioner has a financial interest. This restriction does not apply to borrowing of funds from a bank that offers a competitive rate, designation of a bank as a depository for county funds and in emergency situations.

In the area of abstention to avoid conflicts of interest, the draft ordinance requires commissioners to make known any conflicts of interest before the Board of Commissioners discusses or takes action on an item either in writing to the clerk of the Board of Commissioners or before taking up the item in a meeting, at which time the commissioner may voluntary abstain from participating in discussion.

Another major change being proposed leaves out persons appointed to county boards, committees and authorities from the code of ethics.

Rockdale County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Middlebrooks has said he was opposed to including appointed persons. He argued it is difficult for the county to find people qualified and willing to volunteer on a county board. He said those individuals are already accountable to the Board of Commissioners if an ethics issue arises.

Also, the draft ordinance directs the creation of a three-member county board of ethics. One member is to be chosen by a majority vote of Rockdale County full-time employees, one by the Rockdale County Bar Association and the other chosen by the Board of Commissioners.

Members serve for a two-year term and are required to meet at least once every quarter. The chairman of the ethics board is able to call meetings as needed, according to the draft ordinance.

The ordinance restricts members of the board of ethics from being officers of local, state or national political parties, participate in fundraising or voter registration activities or publicly endorse or oppose a candidate for elected office.

The request for an ethics code came last year from Garvin Haynes of the county's Democratic Party and David Shipp, chairman of the county Republican Party, with support for the ordinance coming later from the Rockdale County Libertarian Party.

At the time, Haynes and others had expressed concerns over Rockdale County Commissioner Jason Hill's membership on the board of directors for the Conyers-Rockdale Council for the Arts, a volunteer group that receives county funding.

The Board of Commissioners had two previous draft ethics ordinances before turning to Common Cause Georgia for assistance. The last draft made it to a vote last fall, but failed 2-1 with Middlebrooks and Commissioner JaNice Van Ness voting against that version of the ordinance.

Questions or comments before the Sept. 15 meeting can be sent to P.O. Box 289, Conyers, GA 30012, or faxed to 770-483-4376 or e-mailed to julie.mills@rockdalecounty.org.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.