Monday, March 26, 2007

The New Tennessee-Style Ethics

A new Ethics Reform law now required by county governments in Tennessee seems to offer little to deter elected officials or employees from worrying too much about conflicts of interest and ethical standards in general.

Case in point - a report in the March 24, 2006 Greeneville Sun about a county commissioner, Hilton Seay, who is also chairman of their newly created Ethics Committee. When a vote concerning an attorney Seay does business with was presented, Seay never mentioned his business relationship, claiming he simply forgot.

Now there are a few prominent failures, in my opinion, of this Ethics Reform Act, chiefly, that if an official does in fact announce he/she may or has a "conflict of interest" in a pending vote, the act approved by the state does not actually require the official to recuse themselves from the vote. Seems a rather toothless law. But more on that in a moment.

Take a read of the story and the players according the the Sun's report:

"
County Commissioner Hilton Seay, chairman of the Greene County Commission’s Ethics Committee, said Monday that he did not think of mentioning his personal attorney-client relationship with Greeneville lawyer Robert Foster when a vote about Foster came before the Ethics Committee in January.

According to records filed in Claiborne County Chancery Court, Foster has represented Seay in a probate matter in Claiborne County since March 2006. That case is continuing. The probate matter was brought to the newspaper’s attention by an anonymous letter that was apparently also sent to several Greene County commissioners a few days ago.

“I never even thought about it,” Seay told The Greeneville Sun when asked Monday about his Ethics Committee vote and his failure to mention that Foster was representing him in a matter of personal business.

On Jan. 10, the Ethics Committee narrowly defeated two measures concerning Foster, each time by 4-to-3 votes. Seay voted on the side most favorable to Foster in each instance.

[snip]

County Commissioner Tim White had asked the committee to reprimand County Mayor Alan Broyles for hiring Foster part-time to handle duties in the county’s Building and Zoning Office without consulting the County Commission.

White also asked the committee to recommend that the County Commission terminate Foster’s employment.

In each instance, Seay, who is the committee chairman and also the chairman of the commission’s Republican caucus, voted against the proposed action.

White and others said then that they believe Foster was hired as a reward for work he did in Broyles’ election campaign last summer.

Foster was vice chairman of the Greene County Republican Party at that time, and is now county chairman of the party.

Asked Monday about his votes and his client-attorney relationship with Foster, Commissioner Seay said that, in hindsight, he wishes that he had remembered that Foster was working for him in the probate matter.

Had he remembered, Seay said, he would have told the committee before the vote that he had retained Foster almost a year earlier, and that Foster was still representing him.

However, Seay said, although he would have made the disclosure if it had occurred to him, “It wouldn’t have changed the way I voted.”

CTAS, an advisory service for county government, offered this comment to the newspaper:

"
Rick Hall, a CTAS county government consultant based in Johnson City, said he talked with David Conner, a CTAS legal consultant, after being asked about Commissioner Seay’s Ethics Committee votes at a time when Seay was using Foster’s services in a probate case unrelated to the county.

According to Hall, Conner “does not see any conflict-of-interest here whatsoever".

The entire article is worth a read, if only to reveal how Ethics Committees in the state's counties operate.

Also of note is the suggested Ethics Policy Resolution via CTAS offered to counties, available online here.

It should be noted that the state law which requires all counties to create a "local ethics policy" by June 30th 2007. If a county creates such a policy on it's own, it must send a copy to the state's Ethics Commission. However, if a county simply adopts the Resolution offered by CTAS, all that is needed is a letter of notification that a county has voted to adopt a policy.

From what I've been reading, most counties are adopting the CTAS model, which requires simply a statement from an official or employee that a conflict may or does exist, but that the individual is free to vote on that very issue.

The state's Ethics Reform Act, according to CTAS, also offers this nugget of information on just how toothless or meaningless this Act :

"The Ethics Reform Act does not contain any provisions regarding enforcement of the ethical standards or specific penalties, but instead provides that violations of ethical standards are to be enforced under existing law. While it is not required under the Ethics Reform Act, the model policy creates a local ethics committee as a mechanism for filing complaints of violations of the policy and maintenance of records. Although the CTAS model policy provides for the creation of a local ethics committee, the Ethics Reform Act does not mandate the creation of an ethics committee or the designation of any other local office to receive complaints."

I'm not claiming that Commissioner Seay is guilty of some wrong-doing. But for a chair of an Ethics Committee to forget to follow the tenets of his own commission is a dubious beginning for affirmative change. And the overall impact of this "reform act" will be minimal at best and likely require a citizen take action, such as a lawsuit, to investigate any potential problems.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Local Government in our area is akin to the inmates running the prison. There is no fear of being held accountable for anything they do. The Ethics Committee is about as pointless as the sunshine laws because they are toothless.

Rogersvillemom

james said...

S.S.D.D.

Robert Wechsler said...

I agree that recusal should be required, not simply recommended. For more on Tennessee's policy, see this comment from the Model Municipal Ethics Code Project I put together at www.cityethics.org. I also have a municipal ethics blog, which is accessible from this homepage.