Presently, the city's ethics committee has the authority to issue opinions on whether the actions of an elected official violate the city's ethics code. Chalfant wants them to go one step further. He wants the committee to issue opinions on whether particular actions pass the smell test and if they have a perceived conflict of interest, even if they don't necessarily violate code.
An example of what Chalfant is talking about unfolded last year when Councilman Philip Goldstein participated in negotiations between the city and county on whether the city would help fund construction of a new parking deck next to City Hall. Both Chalfant and former Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens thought it was a conflict of interest for Goldstein to participate in the negotiations given that his family owns a number of downtown parking spaces. But Goldstein said since he has no ownership in the new deck, he did not have a conflict because the city code requires a conflict of interest to be one where a direct financial interest comes into play.
Were Chalfant to get his way, the ethics committee would be able to issue an opinion to Goldstein, telling him that while participating in the parking deck negotiations might not violate the city's ethics code, it creates a perceived conflict on interest and should therefore not take place.
Chalfant said his proposal was not, however, aimed at Goldstein.
"I think it's aimed at anyone that you perceive is making an ethics violation, not just him," Chalfant said.
The council governs itself by an ethics code it authored a few decades ago and has revised a few times over the years. The code requires a disclosure of the financial interests and property that officials own. It also defines conflicts of interest, describing the circumstances in which an official can or cannot participate in a vote.
If a city resident believes a council member has violated the ethics code, they have the opportunity to file a complaint with the three-member ethics committee chaired by Dr. Warren Herron. The ethics committee will first examine the complaint to determine if it constitutes a violation. If it passes that hurdle, the committee holds a hearing where the accused is able to present his or her side of the case. The ethics committee then votes whether to reject the complaint or to find that a violation did occur, forwarding that finding on to the city council, which then holds its own hearing. The council doesn't have much in the way of punishments to bring, but it can vote to reprimand or censure the council member found to have violated the city code.
"Bring it out into the open and let people judge some of the things that go on," Chalfant said, referencing the way a Senate panel grilled Goldman Sachs executives this week.
Herron said since he was first appointed to the ethics committee in 2002, no council member has been found to be in violation of the ethics code.
The ethics committee may also be asked to issue an advisory opinion on whether a proposed action would violate the code. But presently it can only write about whether the action is a violation, not whether it's a good idea or not, Herron said. Herron said he wants to confer with his two other committee members, the Rev. James O. Speed, Jr., retired pastor from Marietta's First Presbyterian Church, and Jerry L. Gentry, a former attorney for Cobb County, before taking a position on Chalfant's request.
Councilman Johnny Sinclair was mixed on the proposal.
"I don't mind an elected official being able to go before the ethics board and ask them to issue an opinion on that official's own actions, but people can handle their own behavior, and if somebody has a problem with somebody's behavior they need to file an ethics complaint. They don't need to use it for a political weapon," Sinclair said.