A mini-miracle occurred at Hamblen County Commission yesterday.
The Commission voted to enact an ethics policy. No, that's not the miracle. A county ethics policy is required by the state of Tennessee as a result of the Tennessee Waltz arrests of state legislators in 2005.
The miracle is that the Commission voted to establish a 5-member Ethics Committee that will have two regular citizens on it.
I commend the commissioners who voted for an Ethics policy with a 5-member Ethics Committee that includes two non-government members. Voting yes: Baker, Bruce, Ford, Harville, Massey, Phillips, Sexton, Spoone, and Wampler. Voting no: Fullington, Lebel, Parker, and Swann. Absent: Collins.
In a blog post yesterday, I expressed concern that all members of the Ethics Committee would be government officials/employees. Such an "all-government" Ethics Committee was the first proposal presented to commissioners by county attorney Rusty Cantwell back in late 2006.
Last month, I gave a copy of a Shelby County ethics proposal to commissioners and pointed out that the proposed Shelby Ethics Committee has NO government officials and that the Knox County Ethics Committee has only two county commissioners on its 9-member committee.
At that time, I asked that the commission review the Shelby plan and consider modifying the Hamblen County Policy so that at least two members of the Hamblen County Ethics Committee would be citizens who are not government officials/employees.
Yesterday, Joe Swann jumped in and proposed that the county adopt an Ethics policy in which there be no Ethics Committee to which complaints could be made. Swann's proposal had the county attorney serving alone as the county's "ethics officer." This proposal failed.
[Having the county attorney serving as the ethics officer could present special ethical dilemmas for the attorney in terms of the attorney-client relationship. The commission appoints the county attorney. What happens if a citizen or a countywide officeholder brings ethical charges against a commissioner? Is there a professional ethical problem here with the attorney investigating his "client"? What if a commissioner filed a complaint against a commissioner? Is the attorney's investigation of his client ethical? Is the attorney-client relationship damaged? Which client does he serve? And these questions don't even touch on the tricky question that often faces government attorneys, "Who is the client?" The county attorney expressed some reluctance yesterday to assuming the position as ethics officer but agreed to serve if that was the wish of the commission.]
After Swann's proposal was defeated, Commissioner Phillips proposed that the county adopt an Ethics policy that provides for a five-member Ethics Committee that includes two county commissioners, one constitutional officer, and two at-large "regular" citizens. It passed easily. The 9-4 vote is shown above.
Including regular citizens on the Ethics Committee was a mini-miracle. A maxi-miracle would have been an Ethics Committee that had no government officials or employees! In this case, however, 2/5 of a loaf is better than none.
Thank you to the commissioners who recognized that including regular citizens on the Hamblen County Ethics Committee is an improvement over the "all-government" Ethics Committee that was first considered and is far better than placing the county attorney in the position of ethics officer.
More on the discussion that took place among commissioners later.