HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee formally received recognition as a “City of Ethics” at a Georgia Municiple Association (GMA) conference in late June, attended by Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales and Hiawassee City Clerk Bonnie Kendrick. Shortly thereafter, FetchYourNews (FYN) reported on the city’s award, which stemmed from a 2016 ethics ordinance, and later adopted by current council.
Section 6 of the mandate states that a Board of Ethics shall be appointed, consisting of three individuals who will serve as overseers of the city’s ethical conduct. The ordinance requires that one member is to be appointed by the mayor, one by the council, and a third in joint agreement of both the mayor and city council.
Violations of the ordinance can result in public reprimand, or a request for resignation, according to the decree.
Remarks made by a member selected to serve on the Board of Ethics, in conjunction with an executive decision to override the stipulations of the ordinance itself, has raised community concerns.
FYN learned that applications to serve on the Board of Ethics were submitted by local residents LaJean Turner, Susan Phillips, and Leslie McPeak the previous year.
In an email to FYN, dated July 10, Hiawassee City Clerk Bonnie Kendrick stated that Mayor Ordiales believed that the former mayor had appointed McPeak, and that Ordiales had voted for Phillips, although Kendrick stated that it was unclear if Phillips was the council vote, or a combined appointment from both mayor and council. “Now that we have the designation, we will need to go through that process of appointing the committee again from the beginning,” Kendrick concluded.
Kendrick could not produce meeting minutes showing approval of an ethics committee.
Former city officials later attested that apppointment of an ethics board had, in fact, not taken place during their administration, with the three applicants themselves confirming that appointment to the positions had not occurred.
During the July 30 work session, Mayor Ordiales briefly touched on an ethics agenda item, presenting her Board selection of the three board members as a statement, rather than as a consideration before the council.
As last Monday’s work session neared its end, freshly-selected Board of Ethics member Leslie McPeak publicly voiced complaint of recent Republican run-off campaign signage placed on Hiawassee Town Square, along with opposition to a rally held by the Towns County GOP in July at the same location. In objection to the square being used for religious and political events, McPeak stated, “Not only the Democrat Party, but the Nazi Party.” McPeak attempted clarification by adding, “The government needs to be bi-partisan at all times.”
The remark, along with previous statements publicly vocalized by McPeak, begged the question of whether council members believe McPeak is the right fit to oversee the city’s code of conduct. At a Town Hall meeting in June, McPeak drew critisism from conservatives when the outspoken local business owner proclaimed that shops should serve customers on Sundays, later adding that North Georgia should work toward removing its “Bible Belt stigma.”
FYN met with Mayor Ordiales on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 2, to gain further insight into her decision to select the chosen individuals to serve as the morality monitors of the city government
In a recorded conversation, Ordiales explained that the ethics ordinance was originally passed in 2016 by the former administration, and that the application for recognition through GMA had not been submitted at that time. “I wanted to start the process again because I believe in what (GMA) stands for, what we stand for, as being a City of Ethics is very important, and that we should absolutely try to enforce it,” Ordiales said, “Serve others and not themselves, put the citizens needs before anything, I mean, there’s a list of them.”
FYN asked if the decision to appoint Turner, Phillips, and McPeak had been approved by the former council, in which Ordiales responded, “Absolutely.” After learning that former Hiawassee officials had no recollection of any agreement on ethics board appointees, Ordiales responded, “It was their administration, not mine. That’s on them.” Ordiales served as a council member during the period in question.
FYN pressed as to whether the mayor planned to seek approval from current council members on the individuals selected to serve on the ethics board, given the stipulations of the ordinance. “I think we’ve talked about it at work sessions, at city council meetings, and none of the current council has any problem with it. I’ve not been notified that they have an issue with it. Let’s rock on,” Ordiales asserted. FYN inquired as to whether the decree itself would be altered, considering that the terms of the committee appointment process were violated. “That’s pretty much a standard ordinance that GMA puts out, that you should follow. I don’t think you have the option of saying, ‘hey, we’re not going to do it.’ It’s their standard,” Ordiales contradicted.
FYN provided Mayor Ordiales with an additional opportunity to respond via email, along with council members, on Aug. 4.
“Since the paperwork and process was not followed by the prior leadership, we were never awarded the designation. When I took office, I wanted to ensure that we became a certified City of Ethics, and followed the proper processes,” Ordiales wrote, “The three previously selected individuals never got a chance to serve the community as they volunteered to do, since the designation was never awarded. I simply afforded them that opportunity. I presented to the council, and verified that these candidates were still, indeed, interested in being part of this process. The council is aware of these selections, and had no objection to these selections.”
In turn, Hiawassee Councilwoman Anne Mitchell responded by email to FYN’s request for comment.
“It was discussed in a council work session (when, I do not remember) and none of us had any issue with any of the three at that time,” Councilwoman Anne Mitchell emphasized, “THAT is direct input! Do you think it really makes a difference that an “appointed by” name wasn’t attached to each candidate? It might if there were twenty vying for the position, or if there was dissention among the council, but there wasn’t. It was brought up at the July 30 work session as a reminder that we ARE a city of ethics, and we DO have an ethics committee, and who those members are. Mrs. Turner, Ms. Phillips, and Ms. McPeak were agreed to, not by just the mayor, but by the council.”
Two additional council members replied to FYN’s request for clarity, stating that they had not been made aware of the the individuals who sought to serve upon the ethics board prior to Monday’s meeting, nor had they been given an option of favoring or opposing the mayor’s committee selection.
In understanding that the terms of the mandate had been breeched, the two responding council members avowed objection to the overriding measure taken. It is unknown at the time of publication where the two remaining council members stand on the issue.
The responding council members, nor the mayor, commented on McPeak’s remarks.
Hiawassee City Council is scheduled to convene for their regular monthly session on Tuesday, Aug. 7, at 6:00 p.m.