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Members of Sullivan ethics panel among those planning to take Honduras junket

June 13th, 2007 12:00 am by J. H. Osborne

BLOUNTVILLE - The Sullivan County Commission may be asked next week to approve the appointment of seven people to keep an eye on ethics issues among the county's officials and employees.

Among the first questions the group might be asked to address: does the county's new "Code of Ethics" prohibit officials and employees from accepting free tickets to Bristol Motor Speedway? Or can free meals be eaten? Or can a foreign government feed, lodge and entertain you for a few days?

On the latter question, the group might have a hard time getting a quorum of voting members - if those participating in foreign-government-funded travel recuse themselves from the debate.

Four of the seven are slated to participate in a week-long trip to Honduras, set to depart June 26. The government of Siguatepeque, a city in the Central American nation, will foot most of the bill for more than a dozen local officials expected to visit the country. The Sullivan County Commission recently entered an agreement with that city to become official "sister communities."

A state law approved by the Tennessee General Assembly last year requires each county in the state to have an official code of ethics in place by June 30.

The Sullivan County Commission adopted a code of ethics earlier this year. It was developed by the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS). Funded and operated through the University of Tennessee, CTAS provides advice and support to Tennessee's 95 counties.

Contacted by the Times-News on Wednesday, a CTAS official said the ethics policy the agency provided to counties was intended to be a model, not necessarily a "boilerplate" to be copied directly.

Robin Roberts, administrator of field services for CTAS, said while numerous counties in the state based their code of ethics on the model, many of them changed it by adding or subtracting wording.

Sullivan County adopted the model without modification, including a section dealing with gifts.

County Attorney Dan Street said he's already fielded a lot of questions about gifts and free meals. And at least one county official inquired about accepting tickets from BMS.

He said he, in turn, contacted CTAS and asked for an interpretation of the section on gifts from the person who authored the CTAS model policy.

Street said he posed the question, "If somebody gives you something and they say ‘this if for performing your job ... I like the way you're doing your job,' however you want to say it, is that a violation? "

Street said the response from CTAS was that the author of the policy said, in his opinion, yes it was.

According to Street's notes, the gist of the author's response included:

• The CTAS model policy prohibits gifts to county officials or county employees if the gift is given to influence the recipient in how he performs his duties - or if a reasonable person would think the gift was intended to influence the vote, action or judgement of a county official or employee.

• Race tickets or free meals appear to be in violation of the policy.

• On the other hand, if a vendor gives an official a complimentary desk calendar, it would not be an inappropriate gift.

• But any county official would be advised against accepting free meals or gifts of significant value from a person or business that interacts with the county.

That last point - the level of interaction between a gift-giver and the county - was a major topic of debate when CTAS conducted an ethics seminar with county officials a couple of weeks ago, Street said.

Some people, taking the position that free race tickets shouldn't be questioned, asked what business the county had with BMS, Street said.

"I couldn't believe I even got asked that question," he said.

The Times-News sought comment Wednesday from Kevin Triplett, vice president of public affairs for BMS.

Triplett said speedway officials haven't had any questions from any local officials regarding the issue.

The logistics involved for major events at BMS - which becomes the third-largest city in the state during NASCAR race weekends each spring and August - can best be explained by a first-hand look, Triplett said.

"Nothing emphasizes the point more of the issues and challenges in running large events than having officials see things in person," Triplett said. "We are in the city limits of Bristol, Tenn., so we don't have as much day-to-day activity with the county. Obviously, there is some sharing of resources with the city and county to help us with our events."

More than 20 law enforcement agencies help with the two biggest annual events at BMS, Triplett said, and the size of those events has helped local emergency response agencies secure federal grants to fund equipment that can be used year-round and regionwide.

BMS also has agreements with NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership and the Regional Economic Development Alliance to use races as a an economic development tool, Triplett said. Those agreements allow those groups to bring representatives of potential new businesses for the county to events at BMS, where they can interact with county officials, Triplett said.

Roberts said the Honduran trip by Sullivan County officials is, as far as he knows, the first international situation presented to CTAS regarding the ethics policy.

He said it is "definitely not" the roll of CTAS to delve into issues of compliance.

"We're not in the position of opining whether one is complying with their ethics policy or not," Roberts said. "There is a procedure for them to go through to evaluate whether this is appropriate or not. They've got legal counsel. That's really what they need to do. Then they can follow the advice of their legal counsel. That's the recommendation I would make. It's really not our place to opine on whether or not they're in compliance with the policy. Someone needs to look at those facts and make that determination whether they think that is in compliance - either the ethics committee they've put together or the county attorney."

Roberts said a lot of factors have to be considered with any ethics question - a point echoed by Street.

Section 4 of Sullivan County's Code of Ethics Policy, with the heading "Acceptance of gifts and other things of value," reads: "An official or employee, or an official's or employee's spouse or child living in the same household, may not accept, directly or indirectly, any gift, money, gratuity, or other consideration or favor of any kind from anyone other than the county: 1) For the performance of an act, or refraining from performance of an act, that he would expect to perform, or refrain from performing, in the regular course of his duties; or 2) That a reasonable person would understand was intended to influence the vote, official action, or judgement of the official or employee in executing county business."

The policy adopted by Sullivan County also requires creation of a five-member "Ethics Committee."

County Mayor Steve Godsey has circulated memos within county government naming five people to the committee, but they haven't officially been ratified by the county commission.

Street says the group has no authority until that happens.

The five named by Godsey: Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Kerns; County Commissioner Cathy Armstrong; County Commissioner Joe Herron; County Commissioner Bill Kilgore; and Gayvern Moore, payroll and personnel manager for the county.

The group held its first meeting April 24, according to minutes on file with the Sullivan County Clerk's office. Those show: Kerns was elected chairman; Herron was elected vice-chairman; and Moore was elected secretary.

Moore said Godsey has since added two more names to the list of proposed appointees - which is expected to be presented for commission approval on June 18: County Clerk Jeanie Gammon and County Commissioner Linda Brittenham.

A delegation from Siguatepeque visited the county commission last month for a "sister community" signing ceremony.

At that time, Godsey said he and others will fly to Honduras to be guests of the Siguatepeque government and visit with Honduran President Manuel Zelaya Rosales from June 26 through July 2.

Godsey said the invitation was open to all county commissioners, who would only have to pay airfare - the county's new "sister" will provide for all food, lodging and transportation in Honduras for county officials who go on the trip.

According to Godsey's office on Wednesday, those going to Honduras include: Godsey; Highway Commissioner Allan Pope; Armstrong; Brittenham; Commissioner Moe Brotherton; Bill Kilgore; Herron and spouse; Dr. Stephen May, medical director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department (SCRHD); Dr. Shilo Hilger, dental director for the SCRHD's Children's Dental Clinic, and spouse; and Richard Venable, chief executive officer of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, a joint economic development agency of the county and its cities.

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