Committee 'hears' complaints; not public

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By Damon Lawrence

Until this week, meetings of the county ethics committee was all talk about policies and procedures.

On Tuesday night, they finally had to take action on some real complaints.

Opinions about those actions varied.

The three complaints that were taken up by the ethics committee were all deemed not credible.

Committee members insist they did the right thing, while others disagreed.

"I think we learned tonight that this committee is not going to be a judge or jury of guilt or innocence," Committee Chairman Troy Beets said. "I think a lot of people thought that we were going to find somebody guilty tonight, and that's not our charge."

Colleen Landaiche, a former property assessor's office employee, filed two of the complaints against Property Assessor Teresa Kirkham.

Landaiche left the meeting questioning the entire process.

"What the heck happened?," she said. "We never got to hear the complaints, who it was against, nothing."

Kirkham declined comment on the advice, she said, of her attorney, J. Polk Cooley. Cooley sat by her side through the meeting.

Though the committee members never mentioned her name, it wasn't hard to tell that Kirkham was the person being accused of ethical violations.

Not only did Kirkham come to the meeting with her lawyer, but her staff also sat in the seats behind her.

The committee treaded carefully during the entire meeting.

Members prodded County Attorney Tom McFarland with several questions on how to go about things.

"How are we going to protect the people that we are discussing during a public setting?" committee member Nadine Jackson asked.

McFarland said he didn't have the answer, but the committee found the way on its own.

Little to nothing was said about the nature and the merits of any of the three complaints and no names were ever mentioned.

"I know there should be a forum for complaints, but I don't want this to be a means of hurting an individual," Jackson said.

That's been happening around the state, said Ron Woody, a consultant with the County Technical Assistance Service.

People have been using ethics committees to grind axes, he said.

"A lot of that is going to be predicated on how the newspapers report it," Woody said. "The newspapers can either report it that the ethics committee didn't do what they were charged to do, or they can report that people are trying to abuse the system by using it as a platform."

Steven Robinette also filed a complaint against Kirkham, his political rival.

Robinette plans to run against her for the property assessor's job next year.

"I suspect that any time that you have someone wanting to be elected and issuing a complaint, that you could probably assume there was some politics to it," Beets said.

All five members of the Roane County Ethics Committee are elected officials.

Their job is to make decisions that could cause county employees or other elected officials to be seen in an unfavorable light, and some see that as a conflict of interest.

"That's sort of like - what's that phrase? - when you ask the (fox) to guard the henhouse," Landaiche said. "Come on."

Robinette said since his complaint was against an elected official, the committee should have recused itself and let an ethics committee from another county hear the matter.

"I think their minds were made up before they got there," he said.

The county ethics policy states that only credible complaints shall be made a part of the public record.

This allows the committee to keep frivolous complaints from being made public, Beets said.

"There will be people complained against that don't deserve it, so why should we bring their name out in public," Beets said.

That works both ways.

Not allowing everything to become public also can give the committee the opportunity to keep legitimate complaints out of the public arena, as well.

Under current policy, all they have to do is find them not credible.

"I think if anybody that was here tonight and heard the questions, as we tried to work our way through this thing, I don't think there's any intention of whitewashing anything," Beets said.

Beets said the individuals who filed the complaints that were taken up on Tuesday are free to file them again, and include more details to support their claims.

Landaiche is not likely to take the committee up on that offer.

"The answer is no," she said. "I would never go through the ethics committee again."