Job of Cobb Ethics Board is nearly impossible
by Gary Pelphrey
June 21, 2014 11:15 PM | 1768 views | 3 3 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I hope that everyone read reporter Hilary Butschek’s front-page MDJ article on Tuesday, “Complaint against Lee dropped by ethics panel.” She doggedly sat through the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, and then she stayed and conducted a thorough interview with me.

There’s nothing to quarrel with in her reporting; she heard and saw what happened, and reported it accurately.

What she didn’t report is what I didn’t say, and clearly the blame for that omission is all mine.

Sometimes sitting down and just taking a few cleansing breaths can let you see a bigger, more significant picture.

The meeting took place in the Board of Commissioner’s meeting room, the place where the commissioners meet twice a month.

In the two and a half hours Tuesday night in that meeting room, more vital information about the Cobb-Braves project (Code Name: Project Intrepid) was made public, presented and discussed than the sum total of such information during the 14 commissioners’ meetings since the commissioner admitted they’d been negotiating in secret.

In that meeting room, filled to overflowing, where front row seats were reserved for the Braves/Cobb Chamber of Commerce executives, for both the first revelatory vote on the Memorandum of Understanding, and for the final “approval” vote for about 1,000 pages of unread legal contracts.

In that meeting room Tuesday night, we watched local news reports as John Schuerholz, president of the Braves, and Brooks Mathis, executive vice president of the Cobb Chamber, each separately admitted that secrecy was essential to their success, because if the people had known about it, they wouldn’t have approved it.

Frequent reference was made to the “Code of Ethics” of Cobb County. A disinterested observer might have formed the opinion that we were talking about two different documents. In point of fact, the entire Code of Ethics is less than 3,600 words long. It’s not long, but it’s clear from its wording that it’s not intended to encourage making ethical challenges, but rather to protect those who might be challenged.

Actually, the last changes made to the Code of Ethics were made in the year 2000, well before anyone now concerned with its applicability and implementation were elected or appointed to the offices they now fill. That doesn’t make it any less effective when one recognizes the true purpose.

And it’s hard not to see the Ethics Board’s following its statutory procedure, as a virtually impossible task.

First, all deliberations have to be conducted in public. This is the only body I’ve ever heard of with that requirement. Certainly not trial juries; their privacy is closely guarded. Not the grand juries, either. And certainly not a panel of judges, sitting as a panel or en banc as the whole appellate court. You can’t expect conflicting opinions to be well presented, or considered, if every word is being recorded and subject to Monday morning quarterbacking.

And then there’s the notion of a majority rule. Certainly a majority is probably the best way to interpret and apply the law in any given situation.

But ethical behavior does not allow codification; most of its specifics are aspirational. To let a majority decide what is ethical is to abandon ethical goals and stoop to the lowest common denominator. This very imprecision is captured in the Statement of Commitment:

In order to accomplish the county’s mission, the Board of Commissioners are committed to achieving excellence in government by:

• Insisting upon customer satisfaction

• Ensuring high value for tax dollars

• Adhering to the highest ethical standards

• Appreciating diversity

• Being open, accessible and responsive

• Empowering and supporting employees

• Striving for continuous improvement

• Working together as a team

• Being accountable

And then there’s the makeup of the board itself, and who has the power to fire a member. It turns out that any member of the Board of Commissioners can dismiss any member of the Ethics Board for a number of vague reasons. Of course, the dismissed member can appeal.

Unfortunately, his only appeal is to the Board of Commissioners.

We should be proud of what our Ethics Board is able to accomplish within these constraints. It’s like trying to knit wearing boxing gloves.

Gary Pelphrey is an attorney in Marietta.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
Staci Watts
June 22, 2014
Does anyone besides me find Irony in Mr. Pelphrey's paragraph that contains "First, all deliberations have to be conducted in public. ……. You can’t expect conflicting opinions to be well presented, or considered, if every word is being recorded and subject to Monday morning quarterbacking." ?

Yes, I know he meant the judges and juries but it is difficult for the commissioners to deal with their differences of opinions when the law doesn't allow more than 2 in the room together without previous notice to the press, etc. I am amazed they can accomplish as much as they do with the over enactment of Sunshine Laws these days and public hearings and obstructionists such as Pelphrey and Peligreno, etc. Do those negative people every have a happy day? Poor them.

Move On
June 22, 2014
You lost, quit whining and shut up. You are the reason attorneys have the reputation they have. If I ever need a lawyer I know for sure who NOT to hire. Guess you are bitter cause no one asked you to do legal work concerning the Braves contracts.
June 22, 2014
Thank you for serving on the Ethics Board. Thanks for sharing this Mr.Pelphrey.

It certainly helps the rest of us better understand what a rigged system we have available to hold our elected officials accountable, short of voting them out of office the next time around.

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