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VOL. 129 | NO. 54 | Wednesday, March 19, 2014

County Commissioners Review Ethics Code

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners take their first look Wednesday, March 19, at possible changes to county government’s ethics code.

The Shelby County Commission on Wednesday will get its first look at possible changes to county government’s ethics code.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The changes, proposed by Commissioner Steve Mulroy, touch on issues raised earlier this year when a panel of the county ethics commission considered and ultimately dismissed a complaint filed by Commissioner Terry Roland against fellow Commissioner Sidney Chism.

Roland complained that Chism’s family’s ownership of a day care center receiving federal Head Start funds was a conflict of interest. Chism vehemently denied any conflict of interest. The ethics panel ruled that it was an indirect interest, therefore requiring only a disclosure by Chism, which he did.

Chism and Roland agree that, based on their experience using the ethics code approved by the commission in 2007, there should be changes. But they disagree on how those changes should work.

Mulroy’s amendments include elements of the points made by each.

For instance, one amendment would change the definition of “personal interest” to include direct and indirect financial interests to make the county’s code match state law. Roland contended not including indirect financial interests is a violation of state law.

Another amendment would limit the ethics commission to acting on an allegation of a failure to disclose an interest only to cases in which the failure to disclose involves a direct personal interest defined as “non de minimis.”

The Latin term means it is some interest that is not trivial or minor, and Chism contends such a rule would have ended Roland’s complaint before it began.

The amendment would allow the ethics commission to decide not to investigate a complaint it deemed trivial. The term has become an important one in local government ethics codes and includes additional specifics, including what dollar amount makes such an interest de minimis and other thresholds for non de minimis matters.

Other proposed changes to be discussed at Wednesday’s committee session include requiring those with a direct interest in a county contract to recuse themselves from discussions about the contract as well as voting on the matter.

The number of attorneys or those with a law degree on the ethics commission could increase from five to eight and drop the number of those from the broader community without legal training or certification from eight to five at the suggestion of the ethics commission.

“To the extent possible,” the hearing panels would consist of attorneys or those with a law degree.

The county attorney’s office specifically would be empowered to investigate ethics complaints and make recommendations to the ethics panel hearing the matter. The county attorney would select a full- or part-time assistant county attorney to present the complaint to the hearing panel.

The only way an outside counsel would present such a complaint to the panel would be if no assistant county attorneys were available to do so do without violating the rules of professional responsibility.

Local legislative bodies across the state were required by state law to update or implement ethics codes in the wake of the 2005 Tennessee Waltz corruption sting in which most of the defendants were state legislators. The alternatives in the law were for local bodies to either make their own changes or go to a state-mandated ethics code.

The committee session Wednesday is for discussion with no binding votes at the session.

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