Ethics code main topic at civic association meeting

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

CONYERS -- Rockdale County's chairman of the Ethics Citizens Committee said unethical behavior in government can possibly end up costing the taxpayer and encouraged the public to take part in revising the county's ethics code.

Chairman David Shipp is the featured speaker at the April 19 meeting of the South Rockdale Civic Association. Refreshments and visiting begin at 7 p.m. and the actual program begins at 7:30 p.m. The event is free to attend.

The county's ethics code is the topic of this month's meeting, and organizers hope the public will attend to offer their input. Shipp explained conflicts of interest among elected officials could negatively impact the decisions made that affect their constituents.

"We have seen in other counties how unethical behavior can cost the county a lot of money," Shipp said, pointing to a recent ethical issue involving the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners.

Shipp said the meeting is purely informational. He stressed it is a pre-emptive meeting and not in response to any current ethical issue involving the commissioners.

Tuesday's presentation will explain the recommended changes to the ethics ordinance that the citizens committee made to the county commission about a year ago.

"We will be presenting those findings of what we suggested to them, as well as asking the public for their suggestions for changes," Shipp said.

Shipp said the past election season largely contributed to the delay in getting recommendations to the Board of Commissioners.

"Neither them nor I wanted to see it become politicized during the election. Local elections are over, and so we need to get them moving on it," Shipp said. "But we need some public input."

One of the "sticking points," according to Shipp, is that the current ordinance imposes a fine for ethics complaints that turn out to be frivolous.

"We feel that ought to be taken out," Shipp said.

There is also concern about the number of people who will serve on the ethics panel and how they will be appointed. The ordinance calls for five people on the ethics panel, three permanent members and two temporary members. The three permanent members would be nominated from three bodies: the Board of Commissioners, the Rockdale County Bar Association, and the Rockdale Coalition of Homeowners and Civic Associations.

Shipp thought the selection process would make it difficult for the boardmembers to be impartial. The citizens committee recommendation is for a seven-person board, with three permanent members and four temporary members in the event of an ethics violation investigation. He said an expanded board would better represent the public.

"With the elections board, we have seen how sticky those things can be," Shipp said.

Shipp encouraged the community to be part of the revision process, explaining how a decision on a zoning matter or the approval of a new ordinance can affect anyone.

The public, including Shipp, first voiced the need for an ethics ordinance in 2007. The public panel initiated by the ordinance would investigate public complaints filed against commission board practices. Rockdale County commissioners approved the formation of an ethics ordinance in October 2008 under then-Chairman Roy Middlebrooks. However, the ordinance has yet to be put into effect. In March 2009, Chairman Richard Oden named Shipp to organize and chair a six-member citizens committee to study the ordinance, seek public comment, and offer input in the revision process.