Tuesday, May 23, 2023–8:22 a.m.
-John Bailey, Rome News-Tribune-
This story is possible because of a news-sharing agreement with the Rome News-Tribune. More information can be found at northwestgeorgianews.com.
Several longstanding disputes among Rome City Commissioners erupted to the surface in a series of exchanges during a premeeting caucus Monday.
The early session, in the room adjoining the commission chambers, was called to discuss litigation regarding an ethics complaint filed against City Commissioner Mark Cochran.
Chris Balch, an attorney appointed to represent the city in the matter, said he needed to inform commissioners that a member of the board had reached out to a member of the Ethics Investigation Panel.
That panel consists of three outside officials — Bremen Mayor Sharon Sewell, Adairsville Mayor Kenneth Carson and Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey — who were appointed to hear accusations leveled against Cochran.
Balch then addressed City Commissioner Bill Collins.
“Commissioner Collins, because of your communications with Mayor Carson, I’m going to ask you not to participate in these proceedings,” he said.
Collins refused to recuse himself, saying that he has a longtime relationship with Carson. He called Balch’s statements to commissioners lies and said that he contacted Carson because he didn’t like the way Balch spoke to Carson during a May 2 hearing.
Balch said a private citizen, who he did not identify, also tried to contact a panel member about the investigation. One person reaching out may be a fluke, he said, but more than one appears to be an attempt to influence the process.
“The appearance of you attempting to influence the proceedings involving Mr. Cochran taints the process,” Balch told Collins.
He then asked again for Collins to remove himself from the process.
“I respectfully decline to accept your request,” Collins replied, then later said to the attorney “You assume I was trying to influence a vote; I never would do that, sir.”
At one point, Commissioner Craig McDaniel stepped into the exchange.
“This isn’t about Bill Collins, this is about Mark Cochran,” McDaniel said. “The (ethics) process would have worked if everybody would have stayed out of it… It became a little game to make this go away because Mr. Cochran is the valued fifth vote.”
Mayor Sundai Stevenson replied to McDaniel, “That was disrespectful… You with the 5-4 vote, that’s low. That’s how you became mayor.”
McDaniel, then later Commissioner Randy Quick, brought up an April 10 commission caucus when there was a prolonged absence of Stevenson, Collins and Commissioner Bonny Askew. The three showed up later and conducted the rest of the caucus without explaining their 40-minute absence.
None of the other commissioners knew what was going on in that meeting, Quick said. He also brought up an appointment to the Citizens SPLOST Committee, saying he felt the committee’s role was sidestepped by political infighting.
Commissioner Elaina Beeman then addressed McDaniel regarding the 5-4 statement earlier.
“I’m offended by what you just said,” Beeman said.
“I’m offended by being here,” McDaniel replied.
Beeman spoke of her respect for the city commission and commissioners and then said she felt that McDaniel’s 5-4 statement meant that he feels the city commission is racially divided.
Stevenson then stepped back in.
“We’re polarized and we shouldn’t be,” Stevenson said. She then made the motion to close the remainder of the discussion concerning the Cochran ethics probe.
Prior to a second and a vote, commissioners briefly debated whether they should opt to close the rest of the discussion to the public. The first vote was inconclusive.
A second vote came in at 4-3, with Commissioners Beeman, McDaniel, Jim Bojo, and Quick voting to close the meeting. Commissioners Jamie Doss, Collins and Askew voted to keep the meeting open.
Cochran was present in the City Commission Chambers but not in the caucus room, and did not vote. Stevenson added her vote to close the meeting, 5-3.
However, after a closed session of approximately 40 minutes, commissioners exited the caucus in a more jovial manner. They took no action and made no comment about the discussion but proceeded to conduct their regular 6:30 p.m. meeting as colleagues.