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Hall commissioners try to straighten out issue over ethics

POSTED: April 10, 2009 11:26 p.m.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners is having a difficult time defining ethics.

During their board meeting Thursday, the commissioners voted to have an outside lawyer draft a resolution incorporating everyone’s input following an intense argument over what should be included in an ethics resolution.

Commissioner Ashley Bell made the initial motion to vote on an ethics ordinance that would prevent future private business dealings among two or more commissioners.

"In laymen’s terms, basically, as I discussed with other municipal leaders, it is just being neighborly. If two or more elected officials decide they want to buy or invest in property in another jurisdiction such as the city of Gainesville or in Flowery Branch that we give them notice. If two or more elected folks are going to start buying up their downtown or doing anything in their jurisdiction, that we just say we’re coming, what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with," Bell said.

Commission Chairman Tom Oliver seconded Bell’s motion, but Commissioner Bobby Banks requested to amend it.

"We, the commissioners, received an e-mail that was a draft of a proposal for an amendment to the code of ethics for the Hall County Board of Commissioners from Commissioner Bell. We were asked for our input and suggestions. We received a revision of that draft on Feb. 9, ’09 with two new additions," Banks said.

One addition was that no commissioner or commissioner’s firm or business could conduct business with Hall County. The other was that no relatives of a commissioner could conduct business with the county.

"Since that time until tonight, there has been no activity on that draft. I have to wonder if it was because of the new statements that were added by someone other than Commissioner Bell. Perhaps he did not approve of the new additions," Banks said.

But Bell said he agreed with the additions.

"If that is the case, I do agree with that, Mr. Banks, but City View investments is a company and a firm and that would preclude Mr. Tread Syfan from doing business with this county as well."

"I think that’s a little out of order bringing somebody else in right now," Oliver said.

Commissioner Steve Gailey said he had questions about the motion because of the broadness of its terms. Gailey also wanted to know who would hear complaints if the code was violated.

"It does not do us a bit of good to have the ethics rules without somewhere to take it," Gailey said. "We obviously can’t police ourselves."

The motivation for the ethics reform stems from Commissioner Billy Powell and Oliver’s involvement with City View LLC, a corporation that also includes the county’s bond attorney Tread Syfan. The group is purchasing the Regions Bank operation center, which currently is involved in a lawsuit over easements. The property also is tied up with the Gainesville’s Midtown redevelopment project.

Since the commissioners’ personal business arrangement was revealed in January, there has been conversation about the ethical nature of going into for-profit business with other politicians.

Bell’s motion Thursday was the second he’s proposed regarding City View.

At the commission’s March 26 meeting, Bell made a motion targeted at Syfan’s service as the county’s bond attorney.

He proposed requiring the county’s attorneys to disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

"I believe that it would be appropriate if this board would consider a motion that would allow us to know all potential conflicts that relate to our bond attorney and any attorney with the firm of our bond attorney," Bell said March 26. "That we send out a request for proposal for the bond attorney, for the county attorney, and we ask that anyone who applies for this job discloses any legal, ethical or embarrassing conflicts that may affect the county and ask that this be done and allow our current bond attorney Mr. Syfan to apply, allow our county attorney to apply, but in doing so that all potential conflicts be disclosed."

That motion failed by a 3-2 vote. Powell, Oliver and Banks voted against it, and Bell and Gailey voted for it.

Hall County resident Doug Aiken filed a complaint April 6 with the State Ethics Commission regarding that vote.

In a letter to the state commission, Aiken wrote that Powell and Oliver did not disclose their personal business interests and relationship with Syfan during a March 26 vote.

The State Ethics Commission rejected the complaint Wednesday, citing that the complaint did not fall within the commission’s jurisdiction.

But the complaint started a polar dialogue.

Oliver and Powell claim Dana Maine, an attorney from Atlanta, advised the commission during a closed session that there were no legal or ethical conflicts with their relationship with Syfan, and they would not need to disclose it to vote on Bell’s motion.

But Bell said after he stated his motion in the closed session, Maine said Oliver and Powell would need to disclose their relationship to Syfan before voting in accordance with Hall County’s code of ethics.

During Thursday’s meeting, Powell called on Maine to repeat her legal advice before the commission at the public meeting.

"In the past few days there has been a disagreement as to what our independent counsel, requested by Ashley Bell, instructed our commission in executive session on March 23," Powell said. "I’m tired of all the inaccurate statements of what our direction was by other members of this commission and the press’ use of the inaccurate statements."

Banks then made a motion to have Maine clarify the advice privately in writing, which the other commissioners approved.

"We got to get this cleared up as quick as possible. It’s tearing us apart; it’s tearing the county apart," Banks said.



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