Friday, May 12, 2023–5:27 p.m.
-John Bailey, Rome News-Tribune-
The following story is made possible by a partnership with the Rome News=Tribune. More information is available at northwestgeorgianews.com.
A judge granted a 30-day stay on Friday, stopping a hearing scheduled for Tuesday concerning ethics accusations leveled against Rome City Commissioner Mark Cochran.
Cochran’s attorney asked Floyd County Superior Court Judge John “Jack” Niedrach to issue the stay to allow time for a hearing regarding perceived issues with the case to be held.
The decision delays the scheduled meeting of the Ethics Investigation Panel comprised of Bremen Mayor Sharon Sewell, Adairsville Mayor Kenneth Carson and Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey on Tuesday. The panel was scheduled to meet at City Hall to hear testimony concerning the ethics accusations against Cochran and potentially make a decision and recommendation to the city commission, if needed.
An attorney representing the city in the ethics matter, Chris Balch, and an attorney representing Cochran, Jeremy Berry, argued significantly different versions of the city’s ethics code before Judge Niedrach.
“I am not here to determine whether Commissioner Cochran violated a code of ethics or a city ordinance or anything else,” Niedrach said. “This proceeding is to determine if there have been flaws in the process, which I have the ability and authority to do something about.”
In his argument, Berry stated allowing the process to go forward risked allowing harm to Cochran’s reputation in what was a flawed and arbitrary process.
Arguing that the process was tainted from the beginning, Berry referenced an April 26 meeting between Balch and the members of the panel which Berry asserted violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“If they violated (the Open Meetings Act) what is the remedy?” Niedrach asked Berry.
“Start the whole process over,” Berry said. “They started it off on the wrong foot.”
Balch told the judge that he was attempting to speak with three different mayors virtually and admitted he’d proceeded improperly.
“I will own that I made a mistake,” Balch said. “I needed to be able to talk off the record with the panel so they could be apprised of the risk they assumed by serving on that panel.”
However, Balch said that Cochran assumed the risk of injury to his reputation when he assumed the role of a city commissioner.
“He brought some of this on himself by attacking city staff,” Balch said.
Berry was allowed to respond briefly to Balch’s argument.
“Just because you’re a public official doesn’t mean you have to go through a frivolous process,” Berry said.
After the hearing, City Commissioners Bill Collins and Bonny Askew openly spoke with both attorneys in the courtroom about a need to stop what they characterized as a harmful process.
“This is making the city look bad,” Collins said, encouraging both attorneys to seek a resolution prior to the next proceeding.