McDonough Board of Ethics takes no action

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Ten months after the issue was first raised, a case before the McDonough Board of Ethics was closed with the board stating that there was nothing on which to take action.

Citing two separate email inquiries by a local citizen received last December and January, the board’s official finding issued October 10 was that the statements within the emails constituted questions and not complaints.

“The board finds that no valid ‘complaint’ was filed in accordance with the requirements of the ethics ordinance and that it has no jurisdiction to issue an advisory opinion to a citizen,” the conclusion statement reads.

This statement was identical in reference to both inquiries by Jea Gackowski, one dated December 21 of last year and the other dated January 19 of this year. The first email asked, “Is it ethical for any council person to vote on any property that is adjacent to or near their property, subdivision or family property? … Is it ethical for a council person to be a tie breaker on a vote that would allow a purchase of property next to their property or near their property?”

The second email was more specific, relating to Council-woman Sandra Vincent, in whose district Gackowski resides. “Is it ethical and in line with the oath Sandra (Vincent) took upon election, to say to me, a constituent that she will not represent, take calls or meet with me and/or to post untrue comments on social media?”

The finding on the second question also stated that none of the allegations against Vincent constitute a violation according to the ethics ordinance.

In addition to these findings, the three-member ethics board issued several recommendations to the mayor and council. The current ethics ordinance was called “too vague and nonspecific” in several areas, and elected officials were urged to revise it with “more definitive language.”

It was recommended that only a formal complaint be referred to the board. Gackowski’s inquiries were deemed non-complaints because they were not taken under oath and they did not allege specific violations on the part of any city official.

As the board’s finding stated that it would not issue advisory opinions to citizens, the recommendation was made that this be more clear in the ethics ordinance and that the city might want to create a process for hearing and answering these kinds of questions from citizens.

The final recommendation was that the mayor and council consider revising the ordinance to have complaints heard by a hired attorney instead of a citizen panel. It was noted that assembling volunteer board members for hearings can be difficult and non-lawyer citizens on such a panel may be unfamiliar with necessary details regarding the application and enforcement of the ethics ordinance.

Before these matters were concluded, Vincent raised the question at the September 19 council meeting of whether the city should pay for her own legal representation after being told by the city attorney that the city could represent her.

Vincent claimed that the majority of the issues before the ethics board concerned the council as a whole and not just her. She added that she had not violated her oath of office by refusing to meet with Gackowski.

“Not physically meeting with an individual who I felt could possibly promote a threatening environment was, I felt, within my constitutional rights,” said Vincent, who added that this question should have been answered by the city’s legal department and never reached the level of an ethics board hearing.

The council did not take any action on Vincent’s request at its September 19 or October 6 meeting.