Sullivan County officials approve 'subjective' ethics policy

J. H. Osborne • Dec 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — An ethics policy for elected officials and employees of Sullivan County no longer uses objective measures for what kind of gifts are acceptable or not, Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street told county commissioners Monday.

“You’ve made it very subjective,” Street said as commissioners debated proposed amendments to the policy.

When the state mandated development of ethics policies by each locality in Tennessee, a goal was to make rules more objective — and more easily interpreted by a third party, Street said.

An example of an objective measure would be inclusion of a dollar amount as a cutoff level for acceptable or unacceptable gifts, Street said.

County commissioners, including several who helped draft the proposed amendments, said they think an official or employee can judge whether or not a gift giver expects something in return.

As long as a gift doesn’t influence their actions or behavior, it shouldn’t be a conflict, they said.

One commissioner offered the following description of the new policy’s approach to gifts, and no one said he was wrong: “An individual still makes the decision based on their own standards.”

Street said the policy would be hard to enforce with such a subjective measure.

“You could have someone receive a $10,000 car and stand right in front of you and say it didn’t influence them,” Street said.

The commission, largely, voted in favor of the amended ethics policy. Only Commissioner John McKamey voted “no,” while Commissioners Clyde Groseclose and Wayne McConnell passed on the vote.

McConnell actually said he was refusing to vote on the issue because he thinks county officials should have removed themselves from the process and had an outside entity write the ethics policy.

In other business Monday, the Sullivan County Commission:

•Soundly rejected a proposal from Commissioner James King, of Kingsport, that could have led to a state law banning use of a cell phone while driving a moving vehicle. Only King and co-sponsor Elliott Kilgore voted in favor of the proposal. King said he realized it was a long shot, but he wanted to at least draw attention to safety concerns about driving and using the phone at the same time.

•Supported another proposal from King — to support changing the state’s open meetings law to allow larger groups of elected officials to meet and discuss public policy in private and without public notice. King originally proposed lending support to a law change so two elected officials could meet without violating the law.

That was amended on the floor Monday to say Sullivan County supports changing the law so that members of any elected body could meet and talk about public policy in private as long as there is no quorum present. A quorum of the 24-member Sullivan County Commission, for example, is a simple a majority, or 13 members. The commission’s committees — which now meet in public, monthly — have only eight members each.

•Unanimously approved naming the Sullivan County Justice Center in Bristol in honor of Ralph P. Harr.

•Declared its support for an effort, at the statewide level, for “re-establishment of elected superintendents of public schools.”

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