Atlanta Council Rejects Undermining Ethics Board’s Independence

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(APN) ATLANTA — On Monday, March 19, 2012, in a 12 to 1 vote, the City Council of Atlanta rejected a proposal by Councilman Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large) that would have reduced the independence of the City of Atlanta’s Board of Ethics.

Meanwhile, Stacey Kalberman, the Board’s nominee to serve as a new Ethics Officer, has withdrawn her name from consideration by the Council.  Kalberman cited her disgust with Willis’s legislation and the general attitude of the Council towards the Board of Ethics.

Kalberman previously served as Executive Secretary at the Georgia Campaign Finance Commission.

Ginny Looney, who previously served as Ethics Officer since 2008, resigned effective September 2010 to serve as a clerk at the Supreme Court of Georgia.  Under Looney’s leadership, the Board settled ethics cases against Council Members Ceasar Mitchell (now Council President, then Post 1-at-large); Kwanza Hall (District 2), Cleta Winslow (District 4), CT Martin (District 10), and Willis, and former Councilman Jim Maddox (then District 11).

During the debate at the Committee on Council, some Council Members expressed their true feelings regarding the Board of Ethics.

“I think a lot of us has felt as though, at least this is my feeling… we’ve been kind of looked down upon,” Winslow said.

“Not that you were being dictatorial, but I was feeling that as we’ve kind of gone along this path, even before you came before us, that the Board has treated us this way, that we’re over you, that we’re your overseer, and I just have to publicly say that, and that’s very disturbing to me.  And I get that sense and I can’t shake it.  I haven’t been able to shake it no matter who’s on the Board.  And I really get that like, you know, hey, you’re under us, and it’s just not a good feeling, and I don’t get that with other Boards,” Winslow said.

“And it’s almost as though, I’ve got my thumb on all of you.  And I don’t think anybody means to do that.  I’m saying there’s a spirit there that doesn’t sit well with me.  I don’t think it has to do with any one person.  I just think… they just feel that they’re over us,” Winslow said.

The Board of Ethics has oversight over ensuring that various City employees, including Council Members, follow the City’s Code of Ethics.  The Board has the ability to levy sanctions including fines against City Council Members.

Currently, the Board nominates one individual to serve as its Ethics Officer, subject to confirmation by the Committee on Council and the Full Council.

Instead, the proposal would have allowed the Council’s Committee on Council to receive three nominations from the Board and to select the one they like for consideration by the Full Council.

The Committee on Council voted to file the legislation in a 4 to 2 vote, with Yolanda Adrean (District 8), Natalyn Archibong, Felicia Moore (District 9), Sheperd voting yea to file [which means to dispose of]; and Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11) and Winslow voting nay to file.

At Full Council, in the 12 to 1 vote, only Bottoms voted against filing.  Even Willis, Winslow, and CT Martin, who had previously spoken in favor of the legislation, voted to file.

Moore said she felt like she was “in the Twilight Zone with this issue.”

“Some of the discussion and words about oversight and all of this process and all of this stuff, I sure we could had this discussion, colleagues, when we talk about the Commissioners that we appoint at the City of Atlanta… when we talk about the City Attorney and the Chief Financial Officer, who are dual reportings to us,” Moore said.

“There have been many times on this Council I’ve been in the minority, sometimes with another person, in voting no for candidates because we just really didn’t get the vetting we wanted to have.  And many colleagues have held this position that somehow the Mayor can appoint whomever the Mayor wants to appoint, and we have to go along with it because that’s the Mayor’s choice and if the person doesn’t work out, then that’s the Mayor’s fault,” Moore said.

“What’s different about this?  If you’ve got a piece of legislation that says the Mayor gives us three names on any of those, I’m with you,” Moore said.

Several members of the public spoke about the legislation.

“We urge the Committee to oppose the proposed changes to the ordinance… This is a very significant change in the selection process.  It moves the current approach to one that has a de facto bidding or competing for position,” Terry Taylor, Board Member of Common Cause Georgia (CCG), said.

“It is extremely important for the Board to maintain its independent status without interference from the Council.  A large part of that independence is the ability to select its own officer,” Taylor said, quoting CCG Board Member Emmet Bondurant.

In Willis’s original version of the resolution, the new selection process would affect the directors of the ACRB, the Board of Ethics, and the Audit Committee.  Willis submitted an amendment to his bill splitting it up into three bills, each dealing with the three different boards.  Therefore, a new bill dealing solely with the ACRB will be heard by the Public Safety/Legal Administration Committee, and a new bill dealing with the Audit Committee will be heard by the Finance/Executive Committee.

“The League’s position on ethics is based on our belief over our 92 years in business… We agree with Mr. Bondurant the proposed revisions would jeopardize the independence of these three organizations,” Karen Bearden, President of League of Women Voters of Atlanta-Fulton County, which makes appointments both to the Board of Ethics and the ACRB, said.

“The City Council already has the power to reject a nomination from any of these voters.  You can approve or you can not approve.  The language, the way these ordinances are written, opens up the possibility you could pick somebody not on the list of three,” Bearden said.

“Plainly put, the ordinance before this Committee is an astonishingly bad idea… It’s bad policy, it’s bad law, and I think it undermines what this City has accomplished in the last ten years in terms of transparency, in terms of good governance, and in terms of giving the citizens of this City a sense the Ethics office and the Ethics Board are not susceptible to the political whims of those in office,” John Lewis [not the Congressman], past member and immediate past Chair of the Board of Ethics, said.

Lewis said the legislation would be “a profound step backward for our City” and pleaded with the Committee not to reintroduce politics to the selection process.

Lewis explained the process by which the Ethics Board nominated Kalbermann to serve as Executive Director.  The Board created a nine member outside selection panel that conducted telephonic and live interviews and elevated two names to the Board, which then selected Kalberman.

“I think it’s important for an ethics officer to be fearless and I’m really sort of saddened by the withdrawal of Stacey Kalberman’s name for this position because she wasn’t afraid of anyone,” Paula Frederick, General Counsel for the State Bar of Georgia who served on the selection committee, said.  

“Please don’t approve this resolution.  It puts you in there where you don’t need to be.  In my mind it creates a conflict where there is none.  Why would you do that?  It seems to me that you are much safer from a personal perspective distancing yourself as much as possible from this role,” she said.

“Here’s what bothers me… If three people come to any of you Council Members and they’re coming to you as a potential member of a Committee that has oversight over some of  what you do, couldn’t you say to a selectee, to one of the three, ‘I’m gonna ignore those other two folks.  I’m gonna submit your name as my recommendation, so you can count on me.  So every time you see me walking up and down the halls, remember me, I’m the one that picked you over the other two,’” Ben Howard, senior advocate, said.

On the other hand, Steven Lee and Dave Walker spoke in favor of the proposal.

Still, some citizens showed up to speak on the original legislation, including aspects related to the ACRB.  Mother Mamie Moore of Building Locally to Organize for Community Safety (BLOCS); Ted Brodek of BLOCS; Paul Bartells, current Chair of the ACRB; and Joy Morissey, former Chair of the ACRB, spoke against the proposal related to the ACRB.  Again, that proposal, which was carved out of Willis’s original proposal, will head to the Finance/Executive Committee.

A representative for the Audit Committee said they would reserve their remarks for the Finance Committee.

(END/2012)

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