JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The Johns Creek City Council quashed a proposed change to the city ethics code that would allow a member of a city board or commission to address council or speak out on issues not before that board or commission.
The major reason for not bringing it forward appeared to be that it was brought forward by Steve Broadbent, chairman of the Johns Creek Planning Commission, who is also a supporter of Mayor Mike Bodker’s re-election and had once run for a City Council seat.
The item was brought forward by Councilwoman Kelly Stewart at the Aug. 5 work session. She said she supported Broadbent’s desire to be allowed to speak to council as any other citizen of Johns Creek would be allowed to do.
“The way the ethics ordinance reads now, it prohibits any citizen sitting on a Johns Creek board or commission from speaking out on issues to the council that that normally would not come before them in their official capacity,” said Stewart.
Mayor Mike Bodker spoke up in favor of the amendment saying that he thought it was a First Amendment right of free speech. He supported the ethics code where it says a board member should not try to sway the council on issues that pertain to their job as a board member.
“But if they want to speak to another issue that does not come under their [jurisdiction] as a member of that board, then they should not give up their right of free speech,” Bodker said.
But the rest of council were having none of it. Councilwoman Bev Miller said that board members understood the limitations on public speaking when they agreed to take on the responsibility.
“They came into [service] with eyes wide open,” Miller said. “Why change the ordinance to fit the wishes of someone who intends to speak on the investigation? It is clear why this is being brought forward now.”
Councilman Randall Johnson agreed, saying that they as council members cannot speak out on matters in the same vein as other city residents because they serve under the same ethics restrictions. When people take on public service they accept the restrictions as spelled out in the ethics code.
Likewise, council members are not to use their influence to try to sway other commissions and boards in matters that will ultimately come before City Council.
“The timing is bad,” Johnson said. “This is Broadbent’s amendment. It appears to me that we are watering down our ethics code for political reasons.”
Stewart said Broadbent’s motives were not the issue. She said the council members should “take a step back,” and look at the broader issue.
“I don’t believe the ethics code was meant to curb a person from speaking out on issues that do not come before them as a member of a particular board. Anyone should be allowed to speak their mind,” she said.
Broadbent, apparently the author of the amendment, was among several of Bodker’s supporters who spoke up in favor the mayor several weeks ago, but was informed by the city attorney that he was not allowed to speak because of his position on the Planning Commission.
“You are looking at one person instead of correcting the problem,” said Stewart.
Councilwoman Karen Richardson said board members enter city service “with eyes wide open,” and that their rights of free speech are not taken away. They can resign from any board and then are free to say what they wish, Richardson said.
Councilman Brad Raffensperger also spoke against the ethics change, saying it was a change made for one person’s purpose and would weaken the code not only in this case but 20 or 30 years down the road.
“This would mean division. We don’t need people who have taken an oath of office to work together and then want to be divisive. I would not vote against such a change,” Raffensperger said.
Councilman Ivan Figueroa also said he would not support such a change to the ethics ordinance.
“It is incredibly self-serving to have brought up in this political process [the mayor’s investigation] by a person involved in a political campaign so he can denigrate that process,” Figueroa said. “It is clearly so self-serving.”
After the meeting, David Kornbluh is a board member of the Johns Creek Community Association comprising more than 50 city subdivision communities, and as such he was been a long-time observer of the City Council. Kornbluh said he did not see it that way.
“My jaw dropped at what I heard [in the work shop]. For five members of council to say they couldn’t consider the issue because of the individual who brought it up is focusing on the issue at hand, not the idea that board members have a right to speak up just like any other citizen,” Kornbluh said.
“I see it as an issue that a citizen ought to be able state his views. Even members of the City Council would be affected by this gag order the way the way the ethics code is written.”
After the meeting, Stewart shared the same concern, which is once a majority of the council had decided an issue, then other council members were supposed to be unable to speak out against it.
“That sounds like a gag order to me,” Stewart said. “If anyone were to try to impose that on me about and issue that is before the city, I would liken it to Congress. How many times do you see something passed like Obama Care and then see a congressman stand up and speak against it,” she said. “Is that any different here?”