Snellville's City Council recently amended its ethics ordinance in an effort to prevent the filing of frivolous and baseless ethics complaints from being used as publicity stunts. The amendment was inspired by an obviously baseless complaint, filed by a self-proclaimed "ethics watchdog" who appears to have been paid to launch what can only be described as a political attack. The amendment in no way alters the City's existing Ethics Ordinance. It simply allows an ethics complaint to be reviewed before accusations are made in public. That review only evaluates a complaint's legitimacy as bringing forward a violation of the existing ethics ordinance. You can review that ordinance at:
This is an important consideration for all municipal and county governments because "ethics complaints" are frequently used as nothing more than a means to falsely discredit someone for purely political purposes. A formal complaint, even one that is nothing more than a false accusation, is frequently perceived to be legitimate, simply because it contains the word "ethics".
Another point of confusion, is what actually constitutes an ethics violation. As defined by the Georgia Municipal Association, (GMA) the majority of ethics code violations that can lead to court actions or penalties, pertain to actions which result in an elected or appointed official realizing a financial benefit from his or her position. Oddly enough, according to GMA, within Georgia's official code of ethics for governmental service, "There are no sanctions provided for violating any of the general principles outlined in this statute. Therefore, this code of ethics has only an advisory effect on public officers."
Certainly, a complaint could be filed for unethical conduct that did not involve financial gain, but with no penalties defined for such actions, such complaints are rarely resolved to anyone's satisfaction. The ethics codes of most city governments are consistent with state codes, so most legitimate complaints involve improper use of city funds, or financial gain realized from the unethical use of official position.
The ethics complaint that led to the creation of the ordinance that was recently passed is pending further legal action so comments pertaining to it are inappropriate. Another ethics complaints filed against Council member Mike Sabbagh is more appropriate to be used as an example of the effect of the new ordinance. This complaint has to do with Mr. Sabbagh’s appearance in front of the Marietta City Council.
Sabbagh appeared wearing his City of Snellville council member name badge, announced he was a city council member and went on to implore the Council to take a specific action. That could be construed to be a violation of section 3-51 of Snellville’s code of Ethics, which states, “No council member or member of any board or commission shall use such position to secure special privileges or exemptions for such person or others, or to secure confidential information for any purpose other than official responsibilities.”
Sabbagh also made a veiled threat of involving Al Jazeera in the case if the Council did not reverse its decision and give his friend another chance. One can speculate whether Sabbagh was paid for his appearance, or was promised payment if he was successful, but the complaint did not allege any financial impropriety. In either case, whether Sabbagh's actions constitute violations of the City’s ethics code is one matter; whether the complaint should have gone public is another. However, had the new ordinance been in place at the time, it’s quite possible that the complaint, would have been handled differently—to everyone’s benefit.