Not surprisingly, the Hamblen County Commission voted yesterday to abolish its 5-man Ethics Committee.
Not surprisingly, Hamblen County now has an "Ethics Officer."
Not surprisingly, the new "Ethics Officer" is county attorney Rusty Cantwell.
Pushing hard to disband the Ethics Committee that was established in 2007 and give the title of "Ethics Officer" to Cantwell were County Mayor David Purkey and Commission Chair/one-time Ethics Committee member Stancil Ford.
How will this new set-up work? County Attorney Rusty Cantwell represents all county employees and county officials.
So an ethics complaint against a county official or county employee is supposed to be sent to that person's attorney for consideration and action?
Yes. The Commission has just created yet another conflict of interest. The county attorney charges the county $150/hour and now ethical complaints against his clients will be sent to him so he can be paid $150/hour to receive and read complaints (against his clients!); handle the complaint himself (conflict of interest); or assign it to some other attorney (without a conflict) that the county will have to pay.
I guess the first complaint that our new Ethics Officer will handle is the one filed by the Hamblen County Civil Service Board against Sheriff Esco Jarnagin. This complaint was originally filed with the old and now "officially" disbanded Ethics Committee.
[I say "officially" disbanded because the five members of the Ethics Committee who were appointed to one-year terms in 2007 were not legally appointed or reappointed when their terms expired in June 2008. No one was appointed in 2009 and no one had been appointed to date in 2010. The original Ethics Committee members from 2007 (Commissioner Stancil Ford, Commissioner Joe Swann, Trustee Bill Brittain, James Harrison -attorney and citizen member, and Jack Cartwright-citizen member) just kept serving and serving year after year as "holdovers" without legal appointment. It looks like the Ethics Committee that violated the Sunshine Law by having a meeting without notice to the public on December 15, 2008, was made up of five people who acted as Committee members despite the fact that their terms had expired 6 months previous.]
Will Cantwell recognize that he has a conflict of interest in trying to handle an ethical complaint against one of his government clients? Will he charge the county $150/hour as he decides to which attorney he will give this complaint? Or will Cantwell take off his County Attorney hat and put on his Ethics Officer hat and handle the complaint against Jarnagin himself and collect his fee?
Several commissioners are led around by Stancil Ford and David Purkey. Purkey and Ford want to keep everything close to the vest and in-house. Ethics? One person--County Attorney Rusty Cantwell--is going to make the ethical calls from here on out and that one person has a clear conflict of interest that is obvious in the very first complaint that he has to consider.