What does it take for public officials and city staff to violate the city’s ethics code?
In a decision by the city’s ethics board last week, Councilwoman Adrian Bonser was found to be discourteous to a citizen based on her response to an email from Stephen Chipka in February. The board recommended a public reprimand by council to Bonser.
In Chipka’s email to Bonser, he wrote that he was working with Georgia state authorities to revoke Bonser’s standing to use the term “Doctor” as a “medical professional” within the state.
Bonser’s response was short. “I LOL when I read your email,” wrote Bonser. “You are a funny man.”
She then writes that she received a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from Ohio State University, and that no one can take that away from her.
“What you are saying is preposterous.”
Interestingly, Chipka’s complaint against Bonser did not specify that email or accuse her of discourtesy. He instead charged her with abusive and threatening behavior based on her reply to an email almost a year prior, in July 2012.
In that email, Bonser wrote it was the last time she would respond to Chipka’s harassing emails, asked him to seek legal help for his concerns, and that she would not read or respond to another email from him even if his house were on fire.
Hearing Officer Jennifer Keaton told the board that this email from Bonser to Chipka was outside the statute of limitations. Keaton instead told the board that she found Bonser to be discourteous in the February 2013 email when Bonser said Chipka was a “funny man.” She also recommended a public reprimand and two other actions including revocation of Bonser’s city email account.
The board agreed unanimously on the discourteous charge, but was split on what to do about it. In its initial poll, two alternates voted for public reprimand. Chairman Stephen Blaske voted to abstain and board member Wade Wright voted against the reprimand. When a motion was made to recommend a reprimand, the board’s vote was unanimous.
Bonser fought the board’s decision. She reminded the board that the charge Chipka made had nothing to do with discourtesy. Bonser said the ordinance clearly states that the complainant must specifically spell out the violation and the related code section.
The board’s decision was based on a technicality. Although Chipka did not clearly state discourtesy as a violation, the email from Bonser that the board found to be discourteous was included in Chipka’s evidence. His complaint also referenced a section of code that states that public servants of the city shall treat all citizens with courtesy.
“I think there was a technical breech of the ethics code in regard to courtesy,” said Blaske. “I think it would be fair to say that we didn’t find courtesy on either side. We are trying to hold public servants to a higher standard.
Chipka’s evidence was an 88-page document, the majority of which detailed his legal case stemming from a traffic violation in February 2011 when he was cited with aggressive driving. Chipka left his Manhasset Drive home that night to purchase lottery tickets at a local Chevron station. He said he was being tailgated on Mt. Vernon Road and pulled over to let the driver pass him. In order to record the vehicle’s tag number, he followed the car until the driver stopped in the Kroger parking lot on Dunwoody Club Drive.
The other driver was a 16-year-old girl who told police that she was afraid because Chipka was flashing his bright lights and followed her through parking lots. She wrote that Chipka yelled at her when both vehicles stopped.
Chipka was cited; the other driver was not. Chipka began a correspondence campaign to have the other driver cited for making false statements and for using a cell phone while driving which is illegal for anyone under age 18. The girl phoned her parents as Chipka’s car followed her. Her parents advised her to pull into the well-lit and populated parking lot. Eventually pleading nolo contendere, Chipka paid a $150 fine.
Before the ethics board decision, Bonser came out swinging at council’s meeting last week during time reserved for mayor and council comment. During her 11-minute comment, Bonser submitted ethics charges against City Attorney Lenny Felgin and Keaton,
On the ethics charges, Bonser’s complaint against Felgin is for willingly and knowingly forwarding a filed ethics complaint in direct contradiction of the code of ethics. Providing no additional details of that charge, Bonser then submitted her complaint against Keaton for willfully and knowingly proceeding with an ethics hearing in direct contradiction of the city’s code of ethics.
Calling Keaton’s behavior during the recent ethics hearing egregious and unethical, Bonser said Keaton “doesn’t display even a basic understanding of the rules of laws of this country, much less this city.”
Bonser also handed out what she termed a ‘pop quiz’ for Felgin and City Attorney Cecil McLendon; one for which she expected them to provide identical replies. On it was a list of questions related to ethics including who is responsible for taking responses and evidence from the person accused of an ethics violation. She said she wanted to be sure that she charges the right person with an ethics violation for withholding her evidence from the ethics board.
Chipka filed three charges against Bonser. The other two were not heard because they referenced the City Charter instead of the ethics code. Felgin advised Chipka that he could re-file those charges within 30 days. The other two charges accuse Bonser of failing to investigate allegations of corruption and cover-ups with the DPD, and abandonment of Bonser’s obligation to serve her constituents.