Ethics committee forwards complaints to attorney

The Blount County Commission Ethics Committee met April 1 to discuss complaints filed with the committee through the county Human Resources director.

Three complaints were filed recently against commissioners Mike Lewis and Wendy Pitts Reeves and against County Mayor Jerry Cunningham. Two other complaints were filed on March 31 against District Attorney Mike Flynn and Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher.

The committee chose to forward those complaints on to the county mayor’s attorney, Rob Goddard for initial review. “(Commissioner) Ron French made the motion to amend the procedure so that these complaints are first viewed by county mayor’s attorney to see if they meet basic criteria for an issue that should be addressed by this committee,” committee chair Wendy Pitts Reeves said, in a telephone interview.

There was discussion about what to do if a complaint was seen as frivolous or inappropriate and how to handle that. “All complaints come back before the committee to deal with - this is not giving the county mayor’s attorney any final say,” she said.

Pitts Reeves said that the committee is still the body that has the task of deciding what happens with these complaints. “They are merely asking the mayor’s attorney for a review. There’s been concern from the beginning to be sure it doesn’t become a forum where personal agendas can be acted on or where random complaints are heard,” she said. “We want this to be a committee that deals with issues that are significant and relevant and are critical as spelled out in policy.”

Pitts Reeves said there also was discussion about the scope of the committee. “Until tonight, the committee was set on dealing with issues about conflict of interest and gifts,” she said.

One phrase in policy reads “any violation of state law governing ethical conduct,” would be reviewed by the committee, said Pitts Reeves, and that seemed to open the door to other types of complaints. Committee members can remove the phrase or leave it in the policy.

“There was general discussion to leave that as it is, or too take that phrase out and limit the scope,” she said. “After discussions, the committee elected to keep the door fairly wide open in terms of complaints they will hear.”

Pitts Reeves said the committee members discussed situations where the county mayor’s attorney might have to recuse himself. In situations such as that, she said, the committee would simply use another attorney.

Pitts Reeves said committee members want to take this process slow and want to be careful to make sure they do this properly. The commissioner said she hasn’t been surprised by what the committee has dealt with so far. “I knew when the mayor asked me to serve on this committee the day would come when it would be a tough spot, but I have confidence in the people serving on the committee,” she said. “They are professional people. We are not attorneys or judges. This body works primarily as a referral body. We have a right to refer (complaints) with recommendation for certain action.”

Pitts Reeves said several people in the audience appeared to want specific complaints addressed immediately. “It doesn’t hurt to go slow and do it right,” she said.

The chair said that the five total complaints were forwarded to county attorney Rob Goddard for feedback. As soon as the committee hears from Goddard a meeting will be scheduled regarding the complaints, she said.

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