Note: The Hall County Board of Education meeting on Monday, Jan. 7 is a work session that does not include the opportunity for public comment. The board’s next regular meeting where public comment is held is scheduled for Monday. Jan. 28.
Swearing-in ceremonies for elected officials can be rather quick and informal affairs despite the symbolic meaning it carries, especially at the local level.
However, for Mark Pettitt, who will be sworn in as the newest member of the Hall County Schools Board of Education on Monday, Jan. 7, prior to the board’s 5 p.m. work session, the affair is tinged with some controversy.
That’s because Pettitt was arrested on a driving under the influence charge Dec. 15. He had only recently completed a probation sentence stemming from a BUI case.
“While I plan to defend this accusation, I want to convey my respect for law enforcement and the rule of law,” Pettitt said in a Facebook post on Dec. 17. “I realize the people of Hall County deserve the best from their public servants and I look forward to resolving this matter in a way that will restore your trust in me.”
Pettitt’s attorney, Graham McKinnon, asked that his client be allowed to be “innocent until proven guilty.”
McKinnon said Pettitt has an arraignment date set for Feb. 11.
Pettitt has not commented further on the DUI to The Times.
Pettitt, a Republican, beat Democrat William Wallace in November for the Post 2 seat representing South Hall, and replaces retiring board member Brian Sloan.
And an online petition launched by Stephanie Lopez, a Democrat who lost to Republican incumbent Bill Thompson in November for the board of education’s at-large seat, has gained more than 500 signatures from local parents and even some Hall County teachers.
If Pettitt were to resign, a new election would be called.
However, it is extremely difficult to remove an elected official from office.
The board of education, for example, only has the power to censure, or formally rebuke, Pettitt.
And a recall election is a “difficult process” with a high threshold to cross, said Craig Lutz, a Republican member of the Hall County Board of Elections. “It’s a difficult process.”
Lutz faced his own recall effort in 2011 as a member of the Hall County Board of Commissioners.
Proponents of the effort collected more than the necessary 100 valid signatures required to initiate their claim, which stemmed from accusations that Lutz violated open meetings laws and illegally fired top administrators.
But the recall petition was thrown out by a Gwinnett County judge who ruled the proponents lacked sufficient cause and Lutz was reimbursed for legal fees.
Had the claims been approved, then a larger petition drive requiring support from at least 30 percent of eligible registered voters would have to be completed within 15 days. That equates to tens of thousands of voters in a county-wide election.
State law has narrowly defined the kind of malfeasance that must have occurred for a recall election to take place, such as knowingly misappropriating money or a clear-cut violation of the oath of office.
It is unclear that a DUI conviction would rise to such a level.
State law does state that grounds for a recall could occur when an “official has … conducted himself or herself in a manner which relates to and adversely affects the rights and interests of the public.”
But that clause also includes this important caveat: “while holding public office.”
In an interview about a week prior to his arrest, Pettitt said becoming a public figure would be an “adjustment.”
“Keep in mind the weight of the office,” he added. “The school board has a big job to do. You want to do right by everyone.”
Indeed, Hall County Schools has the largest budget of any local government entity in the county, and it serves about 28,000 students.
So, coming in, Pettitt knew he’d face criticism.
Dealing with that means staying “strong in your convictions,” he said.
At the board’s last meeting in December, members had appointed Pettitt as its representative to Keep Hall Beautiful and also its liaison to state legislators representing Gainesville and Hall County.
Though Pettitt has some knowledge of the state legislature after having worked for Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, he acknowledges that the state’s impact on Hall County Schools’ finances means he needs some brushing up.
“I have an interest in legislation and how state government impacts local government,” Pettitt said. “I think the areas I need to focus on are probably school funding.”
Pettitt said he would also need to educate himself more fully on curriculum changes and state testing mandates.