Training center review committee was incorrectly exempted from filing ethics disclosures
By John Ruch
Members of the advisory committee reviewing Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center were incorrectly exempted from filing ethics disclosure reports in what the City calls an “oversight.”
The lack of reports for members of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) was pointed out this month by the Atlanta Community Press Collective (ACPC), a group of writers who oppose the training center, in an emailed inquiry to the City’s Ethics Division. That triggered a review by the office, culminating in an Aug. 18 email to the ACPC from Ethics Officer Jabu Sengova, who said, “This appears to be [an] oversight by our office, and all the members will be required to file in 2023.”
Sengova told SaportaReport that the CSAC — which began meeting last October — did nothing wrong and that her office was confused by the Atlanta City Council legislation that formed it. She said that “initially when this commission [the CSAC] was established, the ethics office was unable to determine whether all members of the commission were required to file. We reviewed the legislation, and the language was not clear; therefore, we did not want persons who were not required to file being subject to the disclosure filing requirement.”
The training center site is owned by the City but sits outside the city limits in unincorporated DeKalb County, and several CSAC members were nominated by County officials. Sengova said that was the core confusion for her office, which thought many members were County appointees and thus not subject to City ethics disclosures. The office did require filing for members who were clearly appointed by the mayor or the council, but those members already had filed due to other City services. Only after the ACPC inquiry did the office realize that the entire CSAC was formally appointed by the council through its Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee.
That leaves at least 11 CSAC members who have yet to file, including the body’s chair, Alison Clark. Ethics reports are meant to prevent and reveal serious conflicts of interest, such as personal or financial ties to City business. The reports are available online.
The CSAC members cannot file disclosures immediately, Sengova said, because the ethics office has an annual filing period of March 1 to April 1 that cannot be changed. “It’s really not fair to the individual to now ask them to file and our filing season has finished,” she said, adding that the office also does not permit voluntarily filing this late.
However, several CSAC members already have ethics reports on file due to holding other positions with the City. Some are employed by the City, such as Atlanta Police Interim Chief Darin Schierbaum, City Councilmember Dustin Hillis and James McLemore, first deputy chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. Two civilian members also have filed due to service on other City bodies: Anne Phillips, who is president of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board and chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit Z, and Shirley Nichols, who is NPU-Z’s vice chair.
None of those people reported any obvious ethical conflicts, such as other business with the City or relatives who work there.
Among those City employees, only McLemore reported having outside jobs. He runs a real estate company called Proactive Realty Group and an emergency planning consulting firm called Executive Safety Concepts. He reported receiving less than $5,000 from that work in the annual filing period.
Nichols reported no employment. Phillips reported working in legal professional services for the firm Dukes Williams and attorneys Waymon Sims and Kamau Mason. None of those attorneys appear to have involvement in the training center or police planning; indeed, Mason has appeared in the news for representing innocent suspects and commentary on the dangers of police training. Early this year, Sims voluntarily surrendered his law license after he was deemed to have mishandled client funds, according to a Supreme Court of Georgia disciplinary order. No one else was implicated in wrongdoing in that case.
The ethics filing error is the latest confusion surrounding the CSAC due to its unusual structure and authorizing legislation that was hastily written to quell widespread outrage about the lack of public input into the training center plan. The legislation misspelled some members’ names and misreported the neighborhoods or officials some represent, and one member was not listed at all. The CSAC is supervised and operated by the Atlanta Police Foundation, the group whose plan it is reviewing, and which is a private nonprofit lacking experience in running public processes.
Among the results was a debut meeting that violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act public notice requirement. Lacking legal teeth, the CSAC also has faced significant internal struggles over its ability to review the plan and to kick off a skeptical member who violated an unwritten ban on speaking to the media. The choice of a site outside the city in DeKalb has sparked controversy over a lack of typical review and now, apparently, has resulted in the ethics office confusion.
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