April 22, 2013

Murray officials sign ethics policy

Rachel Brown

— In an effort to be more accountable and transparent, Murray County’s elected officials have signed off on an ethics policy that Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman introduced.

The three-page policy covers the general character of elected officials, conflicts of interest, financial disclosures, gifts and favors, and discrimination and harassment, among other topics. It is signed by Pittman, Sheriff Gary Langford, Clerk of Court Donna Flood, Tax Commissioner Charlotte Keener, Probate Judge Dale Adams, Chief Magistrate L. Gale Buckner, part-time magistrate Chris Fowler, part-time magistrate Eric Hooker and Coroner Larry Ballew.

Pittman said she wrote the policy herself within weeks of taking office in January and had county attorney Greg Kinnamon review it. Officials signed off several weeks ago.

“It was high on the priority list when coming into office,” Pittman said. “I think it’s very important to set these standards of ethics with the elected officials. We’re setting the bar. We want everything to be done with the utmost professionalism and ethical standards.”

Pittman acknowledged the move was at least partly in response to allegations of several elected and government officials behaving unethically in recent years.

A Murray County Sheriff’s Office deputy and his supervisor recently pleaded guilty in federal court to charges related to lying during a civil rights investigation following the false arrest of a woman who accused a Murray County judge of sexually soliciting her.

The judge, Bryant Cochran, denied the sexual accusations but admitted to pre-signing a handful of warrants. Though Cochran’s attorney, Page Pate, said Cochran never planned to issue the warrants without a hearing, he admitted the behavior was unethical and resigned.

Officials are still investigating how far the alleged scandal reaches. Attorneys for the woman falsely arrested claim Cochran orchestrated a scheme to discredit her by having someone at a trailer park he owns plant meth on her vehicle, and they say he then asked around until he found police officers who would participate in the arrest. Pate says there’s zero evidence that happened.

That wasn’t the first time a high-ranking Murray County official resigned amid serious allegations. Former sole commissioner David Ridley stepped down following sexual harassment allegations by an employee, citing personal reasons. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Langford, who defeated longtime incumbent Howard Ensley for the sheriff’s post in November, said he hasn’t heard much feedback — good or bad — from the public since officials signed off on the policy.

“I think they expected us all to live up to it, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Dalton City Administrator Ty Ross said the City Council in 2009 adopted an ethics ordinance due to the leadership of Mayor David Pennington and council members. It covers the usual topics of conflicts of interest and integrity in office, but it also provides an ethics board to listen to and review complaints.

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said there is no written ethics policy for elected officials in the county beyond what’s already in state law, but officials understand when they come in they’re expected to do the right thing and that there will be consequences if they fail.

“All your elected officials basically serve at the (will) of the voters, so most of them try to stay straight in office,” Babb said, adding, “To tell you the truth, the main thing that keeps people straight is the news media.”


Policy excerpts

• “... Officials shall adhere to ethical standards that eliminate disappointment borne of dishonesty, conflicts of interest, unfairness or illegality. Preservation of public trust is critical for the preservation of democracy.”

• “Treating others as you would have them to treat you is always a good ethical test.”

• “Elected officials must not be involved in discussing or deciding any issue over which they have jurisdiction which will impact themselves or a family member, financially.”

• “Elected officials are prohibited from receiving anything of value or any compensation other than their normal salary for any services rendered in connection with that person’s duties with the county.”

• “... Elected officials must disclose in writing to the county clerk all gifts, benefits or favors received from people with a financial interest in business before the county or which may come before the county that relate to professional or collegiate sports, athletic, entertainment activities or tickets or anything with a value of $75 or more ... All disclosures shall be kept for public record in the County Clerk’s office.”

• “No relative of an elected official may be hired in the department for which said official is elected.”

• “Harassment of any sort ... is considered a violation of the Code of Ethics.”

Source: Murray County’s Ethics Policy for Elected Officials