When a city or county attorney’s office does not represent the ethics commission, should that office play any role in an ethics proceeding? I don’t believe it should.
But that is what happened recently in Cobb County, according to an article last week in the Marietta Daily Journal. After an ethics complaint was filed against four of the five county commissioners, the county attorney (Deborah Dance) quickly filed a response “asking the ethics board to dismiss the complaint, which she called unfounded and based on non-legal claims.”
A city or county attorney’s office should not represent officials in ethics proceedings. These are not civil proceedings against the local government that include individual officials as defendants. They are citizen oversight proceedings against individual officials for the alleged breaching of personal fiduciary duties. A city or county attorney’s office should tell officials that they must seek private attorneys to represent them. And it should leave the determination of allegations to the ethics commission and its counsel.
The city or county attorney’s opinion can only harm the ethics process, because the opinion will be seen as biased toward the respondents. If the ethics commission agrees, it will look as if it too is biased toward the county commissioners.
It was good to see that the ethics board’s counsel (Lynn Rainey) said the right thing in offering to withdraw from participation in the proceedings because he is also counsel to the Cumberland Community Improvement District, which provided a grant in support of the project that is the subject of the complaint.
Rainey is quoted as saying, “I believe, under the circumstances there may be an appearance that I may be in conflict even though I’ll tell the board I don’t feel like that would be a problem or that I could do anything other than be fair and impartial in my consideration and advice to the board. But I think appearances, especially with the Board of Ethics, are very important.”
We all feel we can be fair and impartial, but what matters is how we appear. And how the county attorney’s opinion appears is biased, even if it may be totally correct.
Director of Research
City Ethics, Inc.
North Haven, Conn.
Editor’s note: City Ethics is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides information and advice on local government ethics issues nationwide.