Tuesday, May 2, 2023–8:12 p.m.
-John Bailey, Rome News-Tribune-
An appointed committee of area mayors decided there is enough evidence to move forward with a full hearing concerning alleged ethics violations by Rome City Commissioner Mark Cochran.
The first action of the panel, which met at City Hall on Tuesday, was to appoint longtime Bremen Mayor Sharon Sewell as chair. Adairsville Mayor Kenneth Carson and Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey are the other two appointed mayors on the panel.
Members of the panel quickly weighed in. Carson said that Cochran’s behavior when he openly criticized a city department during a Jan. 23 City Commission meeting was a clear ethics violation.
That was an open forum and that could create problems for the city,” Carson added but said he would like to hear information from additional witnesses. “I think more information is important.”
Harvey stated he felt that they did not need much more information to make a decision.
“I don’t need to have a lot more information as far as a decision is concerned,” he said.
During the hearing Tuesday, members of the panel referenced a report conducted by attorney David Archer at Archer and Lovell P.C., at the request of the city.
The findings in that report, among other things, state that Cochran’s statements during the Jan. 23 meeting “were untrue, exceeded his authority as a city commissioner, as provided in the city charter; and, were in violation of the city’s personnel policies, have been established and have merit.”
Cochran’s attorney, Jeremy Berry, told the panel that they should only be considering evidence concerning a March 28 complaint filed by Rome Human Resources Director Kristy Shepard. The scope of the ethics panel is limited, Berry said, and members should not be overstepping the limits of the complaint.
In that complaint, Shepard stated Cochran had exhibited “uncalled for and unprofessional” conduct and created a hostile work environment for city employees.
Whether or not the ethics panel should consider the information in the Archer report essentially remained unaddressed.
However, Sewell, who has been the mayor of Bremen for over 20 years, said there’s an additional purpose of the ethics panel. The importance of the committee, she said, is to pave a path for other cities when addressing any future ethics complaints.
“We’re in a wad,” Sewell said. “Sometimes we need to work through letting the wad settle out… Part of our job here is to help bring reconciliation for the City of Rome.”
“We’re paving a path for other cities to help go through this ethics process,” she said. “We want to set a good example and lay a good path.”
Sewell said she would like to be able to hear and interview witnesses before coming to a decision.
“It’s very, very difficult for me to get all the information I need to get all the information through written words,” she said.
After hearing evidence, the panel can make one of three decisions: dismiss the complaint, sustain the complaint and recommend no punishment or sustain the complaint and recommend punishment. However, the panel itself has no enforcement power.
As chair Sewell instructed appointed special ethics prosecutor representing the city, Chris Balch, and Cochran’s attorney, Jeremy Berry, to compile an abbreviated list of potential witnesses to consider.
“Just give us the facts of what we need to know from Cochran’s side and the city’s side,” Sewell said.
However, members of the panel intimated they feel they have enough information to make a decision. In a back and forth with Cochran’s attorney, Carson stated the case was “pretty much cut and dry.”
Carson stated Cochran had violated the ethics code for outbursts in the city commission hearing on Jan. 23.
The next meeting will likely be scheduled on May 15 or 16 at the city commission chambers. A definite date will be determined after each of the panel members confirm their schedules.
Balch said the panel should wait until an Open Records Act request by Cochran is fulfilled by the city. Cochran has requested information, including text messages, concerning the ethics filing and Balch told the panel it will take some time to complete that request.