The Clarksville City Council amended its ethics code ordinance to allow the council to have the discretion to approve the reimbursement of attorney fees for city officials and employees who are charged with ethics violations.
The measure was approved Oct. 1 in a 9-3 vote.
If the Clarksville Ethics Committee determines an ethics violation didn’t happen with respect to an allegation, the city council may, upon request of the city employee or official, reimburse the one charged for his or her legal and other related expenses.
The body of government could also choose not to cover those expenses.
In introduction of the amended ordinance’s first reading last month, Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts said it was no secret there were ethics complaints filed by a citizen against city attorney Lance Baker, the deputy attorney and several council members.
The complaints lodged against multiple council members, including Pitts, came from Jeff Robinson, who owns Blackhorse Pub and Brewery, and his company continues a lawsuit against the city.
The council’s action necessitated bringing in Nashville attorney Saul Solomon to act as city attorney pro-tem with the ethics code ordinance facing the council.
Councilman Gary Norris said the ethics commission has jurisdiction over all ethics complaints made against any members of the council, including the mayor, and also the city judge, city attorney, city clerk, director of finance and director of internal audit.
It also covers all department heads of the city and all members of its boards, commissions or authorities, including any like body established by the city, Norris said.
There are 38 boards and committees associated with the city, which adds up to between 250 and 260 people, according to Norris.
According to the ordinance prior to the council amending it, once an ethics complaint is lodged, the ethics commission determines whether to hold a hearing on the complaint.
Each party would then have the right to represent themselves and have the assistance of legal counsel at their own expense, but they would not be able to be represented by non-attorneys.
“When I read that, I thought it was kind of unfair to make somebody who was charged with an ethics violation and they were found innocent, yet had to pay for their own attorney if they had one,” Norris said. “In a perfect world, the person accused and the person being accused would stand up in front of the ethics commission and explain their case. Then he or she would be found guilty or innocent.”
Norris said it was possible the person who filed the complaint could be a lawyer or a company that had lawyers accessible to them on staff.
“Most people would be intimidated by that, even if they were innocent,” Norris said.
Norris amended the ordinance to read, “Each party shall have the right to represent themselves, and to have the assistance of legal counsel at their own expense, but may not be represented by non-attorneys.
“If the ethics committee determines that an ethics violation has not occurred with respect to any alleged violation, the city council may, upon request of the city employee or official, reimburse such employee or official for such person’s legal and other related expenses,” Norris said.
Norris said no funds would be paid in advance. They will only be paid to people who were found innocent.
The pending ethical charges filed against council members, the mayor and the city attorney do not apply to the ordinance change, according to Norris.
The 9-3 vote included no votes from council members Richard Garrett, Wanda Smith and David Allen.
Council members Smith and Allen both said they would prefer to see a cap or limitation of an amount of legal fees that could be charged placed into the ordinance.