Changes may soon be coming to the way ethics complaints are handled against elected city officials after council members voted on first reading Tuesday to amend portions of the city’s code of ethics to allow for the creation of an ethics board.
Most notably, constituents may soon be unable to file complaints anonymously, and may only be able to file them outside of election season.
The ethics board, which will review and investigate the complaints before they are presented to the council, is being created by the amending of ethics code sections 1-410 and 1-411 with a new version.
The previous versions of 1-410 and 1-411 essentially dictated all investigation duties of a complaint to the city attorney, but left out key details regarding the full process of presenting those complaints.
Now, city councilmembers have unanimously voted on first reading on a new process with which the complaints will be handled—including the creation of the seven-person ethics board, and new stipulations on how complaints are filed—after three more ethics complaints were filed against city council members.
Complaints against Taylor, more lead to drive to change code
The lack of clarity in the previous codes led to confusion at the April city council meeting, where councilmembers discussed how to handle the two complaints against councilman Paul Taylor.
The complaints, which were filed in February, accused Taylor of using his position as a city official to benefit his family’s company, Gary A. Taylor Investment Company.
Now, the two complaints against Taylor have been joined by three more—one against Councilmember Marda Wallace, and two against Councilmember Ernest Brooks Jr.
The complaint against Wallace, which are partially aimed at the entirety of the council, demanded that every councilmember who voted for Taylor’s investigation at the April city council meeting “should be investigated for failure to ask him to not vote (on a conflicting issue),” and that every person on the council who owns property should be investigated for “not disclosing their ownership interest prior to all votes.”
Wallace refuted having any responsibility for how Taylor voted.
“I could not tell you what they’re business name even is,” she said. “I do not know the properties that they own, and it’s not my place to tell any council member how to vote or abstain. I did, in all fairness, speak with Councilman Taylor when all this came out, for his own benefit, and said if he had any questions, it would be in his best interest to always abstain.”
The complaints against Brooks allege two separate issues: that he used his “power of preferential treatment” to “not pay his JEA bill for six months,” and that Brooks would not help a constituent with their “problem” unless they “hired (Brooks) as a lawyer.”
"Both anonymous complaints are untrue and lack merit," Brooks said. "I welcome the investigation by the newly formed ethics committee and look forward to being fully vindicated."
Within one of the complaints against Brooks, a line also accused Jackson City Mayor Scott Conger of hiring his father-in-law “to a department that he is not qualified for.”
“No, (that’s not true),” Conger said in regards to the complaint. “And I think to prove that, I’d like to remind people that I laid off my own father. So I don’t show favoritism.”
Although the push to change the ethics codes—in order to make the handling process clearer—was already underway due to the complaints against Taylor, the urgency of the process was increased by the new complaints.
New stipulations on how residents can file complaints
The unanimous vote at Tuesday’s city council meeting amended on first reading the previous ethics codes with a newer, lengthier explanation, essentially setting up the new ethics board and detailing new restrictions on how residents can file complaints.
The changes will become official if it is passed on second reading at the June city council meeting.
“There was some concern in my office, and the mayor’s office, and I think amongst every council person I’ve talked too, that the anonymity has created more issues than it has solved,” said City Attorney Lewis Cobb, while presenting the ethics change to the city council. “So we were asked to check what other entities did—we reviewed the Madison County ethics, we reviewed the school system ethics, we reviewed several municipalities.”
The newly proposed ethics codes were inspired by “how Memphis handles the complaints.”
“Instead of having an anonymous complaint jump right into council to vote on it, we’ll add some steps,” Cobb said. “We wanted to have an ethics committee to do the initial sorting, and decide if we can solve it there.”
The ethics board will consist of seven members—four will be appointed by the mayor with confirmation from the council, and three by the council.
Terms for the individuals will be three years, though the terms of the initial appointees will be staggered.
For residents who have an ethics complaint to file, the rules will drastically change, if the amendments are passed on second reading.
Previously, residents could anonymously fill out a complaint on the Ethical Advocate Portal. With the new changes enacted, “complaints regarding violations of the Code of Ethics or of any violation of state law governing ethical conduct should be lodged with the Internal Auditor for the City of Jackson who shall then direct the questions and complaints to the Chairperson of the Ethics Committee.”
Complaints will have to be handed in in-person, in writing, signed by the complainant, notarized, contain the complainant's legal name and mailing address and the names of those the complaint is against.
Document notarization does come at a fee.
Anyone who files a “false a complaint” may be “subject to applicable civil and criminal penalties,” though the code change does not detail how a constituents complaint will be ruled “fake.”
This stipulation was not in the previous codes.
Additionally, complaints against an elected official—or anyone running for election—will not be allowed “during the years in which the City holds municipal elections--” specifically, “from the last day on which a person may qualify as a candidate until after 11:59 p.m. of the following election day.”
These new rules are retroactively effective to January 1st, 2022, meaning they cover all five complaints currently filed against city council members.
The Ethical Advocate Portal will remain open until these changes are passed on second reading, when they become official.
“It’s going to be a better process,” Conger said, noting that the process will cut down on “retaliatory political complaints.”
Taylor stated that “anonymous complaints have a place,” and suggested that anonymous complaints will need more weight to be considered “factual.”
“So the way I see it—anonymous complaints have a place,” he said. “Somebody needs to be able to complain in a way that can provide information anonymously. But I think that’s all they are—information. There’s not a lot of factual knowledge that’s being presented in these things. So I imagine they’ll become supporting documentation for other…. If there’s a collection of these complaints that continue to come in, then that may graduate to that level. I don’t know. We’re still figuring it out as we go.”
The changes will go to second reading at the June 7th city council meeting, at 9 a.m.
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This article originally appeared on Jackson Sun: No more anonymity, no complaints during election season: changes to city ethics complaints process coming