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Wanted: Meaningful reform of ethics code

By   /   January 5, 2010  /   Comments

At the very front of what I’m about to say, let me note that this is just an idea I’ve been thinking about that may or may not work. Based on my own thinking right now, I think it might, and it is certainly a different approach than what we’ve got right now, which is largely a paper tiger. Obviously, the point in writing this at all is that I would like public discussion on it, so feel free to have at it!

Sam Olens told me a couple of weeks ago that if the Cobb County Commission violates the State’s transparency laws, they can be fined a whopping $100 per occurrence, and suggested that for the laws to have any real teeth, there needed to be an extra zero on that number.

That was the quote in particular that has stuck with me since that interview, floating in the back of my mind. As with many of my solutions, after percolating back there for a while, it finally comes to me, as this one has:

What if we take off a zero?

But when we take off that zero – making the fine a maximum of $10 – we also switch out how often it can be levied. Instead of per occurrence, let’s make it per registered voter affected per occurrence. For example, if the City of Leesburg violated the State’s Open Meetings law, instead of being fined $100 for the meeting that violated the law, they could be fined $10 x ~ 1600 voters, or $16,000 for every meeting that violated the Open Records law. If the Lee County Commissioners violated the Open Records law, the fine could be up to $10 x ~18,000 voters, or $180,000. Dougherty County Commissioners would face up to a $10 x ~56,000 = $560,000 fine for every violation of the Open Meetings law.

Even a $1 per registered voter per occurrence fine would be a dramatic deterrent in the current economic times, as the elected officials would not want to have to raise taxes because they violated an Open Meetings law – talk about a political gold mine for their opponents!

But wait – we can go even further with meaningful transparency reform! If we could force all county and municipal boards to meet when the majority of the public could actually attend all the meetings (say no earlier than 6 p.m. on a weekday?), more people would have the opportunity to be at the meetings, and thus more sunshine is allowed in via people becoming truly informed, active citizens in their communities.

Furthermore, if we forced local governments to be more proactive about letting the public know about special called meetings – say by announcing them in the legal organ of the county and on the organization’s website (if available) for at least one week prior to the time of the meeting – we could add some further sunshine in there. Obviously, any violations of these provisions would be subject to the same per registered voter, per occurrence fine as described above.

Finally, what if we subjected all politicians to this same type of fine – up to $10 per registered voter in the district, per occurrence – for all ethics violations, including failure to file required disclosures on time? Would this not send a clear message to politicians at all levels that if they didn’t shape up, they would pay dearly out of their own checkbook?

The “solutions” we have are being shown to have failed us. It is time we go back to the drawing board and come up with new, more stringent ideas, and I think the ideas I’ve proposed here are a good step in the right direction. As I said at the beginning, I’d love to hear what you think.

If you are a legislator reading this and I’ve caught your eye with some of it, I would love to talk to you about the possibility of introducing one of these bills this session – I’ve got bill proposals already written for at least one of the ideas I’ve discussed here (the after hours meetings), and I can write the others up if I can find anyone willing to actually sponsor it in the General Assembly.

If you are just a concerned citizen reading this, and want to help, talk to you legislator about these ideas. If you let me know who you’ve contacted, I will also contact them directly and make my case.

Who knows, we might just be able to pass meaningful ethics reform in Georgia in 2010!

Written by Jeff Sexton. Jeff Sexton co-owns the political blog SWGAPolitics.com and is a candidate for the Leesburg City Council.

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