There’s lots of talk these days about why and how the city’s ethics legislation should be amended. This isn’t the first time some members of the City Council have proposed changes to the tough ethics policy enacted by my administration and the City Council in 2002. In May 2006 the council backed down after there was public outcry as a result of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s coverage of the proposed changes. The newspaper ran a pointed editorial opposing the ethics changes along with the photographs of each Council member who had voted in favor of loosening the ethics rules.
It doesn’t seem that high-pitched media coverage or public interest is as high as it was then. It was almost seven years ago and memories fade and lessons are forgotten. However, a report covered in the AJC today notes that Georgia is last in the nation on the strength of its public corruption laws.
When I ran for mayor in 2001 nearly everywhere I campaigned people asked how they could trust me to do what I promised and what was expected of me. It seemed many potential supporters wanted reassurance about my integrity and my character. At many of the public forums each candidate was asked about their commitment to establishing standards for transparency in government hiring and procurement.
Attorney Emmet Bondurant offered a proposed charter change related to reinstatement of personal liability for Atlanta’s Budget Commission members, which included the Mayor, two members of the Council appointed by the Mayor, the Chief Financial Officer and the Finance Committee Chairman. The passage of this change resulted in at least one Council member declining the mayoral appointment to the Commission.
During my 2001 campaign, I committed to gather a group of civic and business leaders to access national best practices on ethics and to follow the group’s recommendations to me without modification.
After the election women and men including Attorneys Dorothy Kirkley and Stacey Abrams (now Georgia House Minority Leader), former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole and a few others recommended the ethics legislation to me and I recommended the proposal to the Council without modification as promised. A major part of their proposal, which was passed by the council, determined it was best to remove all political appointments from the city ethics board. Since 2002 the Board has elected the chair themselves and the Ethics Officer, staff and board set policy governing the city’s business affairs.
The principles adopted by Atlanta set a new high and stringent standard for full disclosure by elected, high-ranking and influential officials in Georgia. The Compliance Officer in the Law Department, Internal Auditor, and the Ethics Officer agreed to launch the Integrity Hotline, post officials’ annual disclosure reports online, investigate and rule on allegations and publish investigative findings.
Politically, weakening ethics rules is almost a death wish for elected officials who seek higher office because their opponents will likely use this lapse in judgement against them. To do it without public input, rigorous debate and lots of research in 2012 seems unwise and not likely to serve the city well.