A popular weekend destination for many in Atlanta and around the Southeast has attracted criticism from good government groups thanks to a new city ordinance freezing the ethics complaint process beginning 90 days before local elections, and ending when election results are certified.
“We’re all on our best behavior all the time,” quipped Tybee Island City Council member Bill Garbett, who voted for the changes to the city’s ethics ordinance. “It really is not that important,” he said.
“This takes the ethics issue out of the mix of the election. I think that’s really important for fair elections,” Council member Julia Livingston told the Savannah Morning News.
The city of Tybee Island, home to just over 3,000 people, has an ethics commission appointed by the city council. It typically fields ethics complaints from citizens, determining merit and any potential punishment for elected officials. The commission can hold public hearings.
During the new period around elections when ethics complaints won’t be reviewed, citizens can still make the information public through other means, Garbett said.
"The ordinance would simply give people a break from ethics complaints before the election, and of course what it doesn't do would be to keep anyone from getting on Facebook and doing the same thing,” he said.
But good government groups see the period around elections as the most important time for ethics complaints to be filed and reviewed.
“There should be more systems in place that can research and investigate ethics complaints that close to an election,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.
“You’re taking away one of the protections that voters and the public at large can use to report mishandling of campaigns,” she said.
Many ethics complaints can be highly political, and sometimes frivolous, said Henderson.
Garbett remembers a 2015 case where an ethics complaint was filed against Council member Wanda Doyle, for requesting a city clerk email local businesses about a proposal to ban plastic bags. Doyle was reprimanded by the ethics commission, for unintentionally violating the city’s ethics ordinance at the time.
Doyle did not respond to requests for comment.
William Perry with Georgia Ethics Watchdogs proposed the ethics commission prepare a “rapid response” team to handle ethics complaints around the time of elections.
“If they get a complaint within 24 or 48 hours they can either respond, and name it frivolous, or say that it’s a legitimate complaint and possibly rule on it,” he said.
But for Tybee Island City Council member Barry Brown, the problems with the city’s ethics problems go beyond how the process works. He voted against establishing the freeze on ethics complaints around elections.
“There’s nothing really accomplished" by ethics complaints according to Brown, who said every ethics complaint he remembers was “bogus.”
Brown advocates for eliminating the city’s ethics system entirely, and turning the process over to an outside group.
“It’s just so tight down there. Everybody knows everybody. It’s just a situation where I don’t know if anybody would get a fair shake,” Brown said.