A four-member county commission board voted last week to make instrumental changes to the county’s ethics ordinance.
Fayette County commission chairman Steve Brown recused himself at the start of the meeting called specifically to discuss the problems in the county’s ethics ordinance. Problems that, if ethics board member comments were any indication, may have resulted in Brown’s conviction on two charges the week before.
Brown said that since he was still embroiled in his own ethics issues, he would be stepping down from the discussion and leaving the meeting, turning it over to vice chairman Charles Oddo.
“I’m going to take a little liberty before we start. It’s an opportunity for me to express my feelings about what happened before going forward,” said Oddo.
Because of the serious nature of the ethics ordinance and its implementation, said Oddo, “I believe I have an obligation to explain my thoughts on last week [at the ethics hearing].”
“We’re all aware that last week the Fayette County ethics board conducted a hearing regarding an ethics complaint filed against Steve Brown by commissioner Robert Horgam. Commissioner Brown was found to have violated the ethics ordinance on two occasions. What we witnessed was how a well intentioned ethics ordinance can be used in a manner that is contrary to the intent and spirit of the ethics it was intended to uphold. It is my opinion that this flaw in and of itself can create opportunities for unethical actions.”
Oddo said it was said at the hearing that ‘intent’ was not the basis that was used as a basis for the decision. In fact, he noted, the very facts evident in the complaint showed that Brown was trying to act in the best interest of citizens and to ensure that he and the county he represents were acting in accordance with rules and regulations.
“At no time were Commissioner Brown’s intent questioned. He was, in fact, practicing the very thing he was found to have violated - ethics.”
The ethics board, he noted, needs to be looking at more than the letter of the law because no ordinance covers every aspect of the law.
“When ethics and the ordinance are in conflict, ethics must prevail.”
He said he was not, “casting any aspersions on the ethics board members.
“Each member voted his or her conscience with an ordinance that allowed no leeway in circumstance and intent.”
Oddo said if they could reverse the decision he wholeheartedly recommended they do so.
Oddo added he was concerned, that as they moved forward, they make sure the ethics ordinance and the board have a singular goal and the capability to express good judgement when written word and intent clash.
“If an ethics ordinance can be used to find an elected official guilty of that ordinance at the same time that official is acting ethically, than we are potentially playing a game of ‘gotcha’ and it could have potential serious consequences.
“If that problem is not addressed, similar situations will happen again and this application of ethics ordinance could happen again. And we could find the very application of the ethics ordinance itself to be unethical.”
The crux of one of the charges against Brown in Horgan’s complaint charged that Brown “gave a direct instruction to the county’s Human Resources director, Lewis Patterson, to seek a legal opinion from the state attorney general.”
Horgan’s evidence of the alleged violation was attached to the complaint in the form of a letter from Brown dated November 12, which notes he asked Patterson to contact the attorney general’s office.
In 2-209(n) of the ethics ordinance, points out Horgan, “commissioners shall not, acting alone, make suggestions to the department director or their employees regarding the performance of their duties, nor give instructions to the department directors or other employees.”
“For the record,” said commissioner David Barlow, “that means if the restroom ran out of toilet paper and I asked the janitorial service to supply it, I could be guilty of the ethics ordinance.
“If a constituent asked me a question about something, and I asked a staff member to provide me with information so I could research it, I could be found in violation.”
Barlow agreed the examples were ridiculous.
“The ethics ordinance is there for the proper operation of democratic government and that public officials be independent and impartial and responsible to the people. to be sure that a public office isn’t used for personal gain. The ethics ordinance shouldn’t be used as a tool to turn officials away from serving their citizens.”
Commissioner Randy Ognio said he looked over meeting minutes for the past year and, doing a search for words like “suggest” or “suggestion,” the word was found 97 times.
“Even in the meetings we have, we could be cited for making a suggestion to department heads. We’ve got to make it so we can communicate with department heads and have a working conversation.”
The board voted to make changes to Section 209 (n) of the county ethics ordinance, eliminating “Commissioners shall not, acting alone, make suggestions to the department directors or their employees regarding th performance of their duties nor give instructions to department directors or other employees.”
Instead, the newly approved paragraph will read: “County commissioners, as policy makers, shall refrain from interfering in the daily administrative affairs of department directors. Commissioners shall not make recommendations regarding the hiring, firing or disciplining of department directors and other county employees.”
Several members of the community, all on hand for the meeting, also asked for the ethics board to consider reversing the decision on Brown’s case. More than that, they asked for a complete review of the ethics board, with the possibility of adding members to the board, bringing it up to five, and also for additional professional training on not only the ordinance but on meeting procedure.
Additionally, there will be ongoing discussion about tweaking the ordinance.
“This proposal is small in nature, probably by design. It’s a difficult task to revamp an ethics ordinance. You have to do it so it dovetails with current code,” noted interim county attorney Dennis Davenport.