Tuesday, July 11, 2023–7:25 a.m.
-John Druckenmiller, Rome News-Tribune-
A rift among Rome City Commissioners expanded during Monday’s caucus meeting, called in part to hear the potential next steps in the ethics investigation of Ward 1 incumbent Mark Cochran.
It ended after nearly an hour of fiery, occasionally profane debate with one clear path: a Floyd County Superior Court review set for 9 a.m. Aug. 21.
What happened in between was perhaps one of the ugliest exchanges among the city commissioners in recent memory.
The split was quickly evident as commissioners were first asked to vote on whether to go into a closed meeting to discuss the case, including a potential settlement the commission previously told their attorney to further review.
The vote failed by a 4-4 margin, meaning there weren’t enough votes to approve meeting outside the public eye. State law allows, but does not require, governments to meet behind closed doors to discuss litigation, personnel and real estate.
The crack widened as Commissioner Jamie Doss asked Mayor Sundai Stevenson for permission read a two-page statement about the Cochran investigation for those attending the caucus.
The typed document was signed by Doss as well as Commissioners Jim Bojo, Craig McDaniel and Randy Quick.
Doss’ request drew an immediate objection from Commissioner Bonny Askew, stating the rest of the board had not been made aware of it. Stevenson turned to Chris Balch — the city’s hired attorney to lead the Cochran case — for guidance.
Amid the debate, Askew, as well as Commissioner Bill Collins, were questioned about their huddle with the city manager and city attorney during a previous caucus to discuss parts of the case.
The argument basically was along the lines of the childhood playground spin on “you did it first.”
Eventually, Stevenson allowed Doss to read the statement, which dealt with the proposed settlement as well as a basic timeline of the city’s accusations against Cochran.
From there, it dissolved into mostly he said/she said along racial lines. An upset Askew grilled Balch to confirm a vote in an earlier closed meeting to continue the review of the settlement proposed by Cochran’s attorney, Jeremy Berry.
Balch confirmed the deal on the table was to pay $50,000 of Cochran’s legal fees — the commissioner hired outside representation in the ethics investigation. Part of that deal included, as Balch described it, Cochran apologizing to any city employee who felt attacked by his recent questions on delays in key development decisions.
Balch said he couldn’t name the commissioners who voted to move forward with negotiations as that would violate his agreement of confidentiality from that closed meeting.
A flustered Askew smacked his hand on the table repeatedly, declaring “that’s bull—-.” He did so several times. At one time, the Rome police administrator attending the meeting moved behind Askew.
The commissioners continued their questions, with Collins finally redefining their request to Balch to basically confirm there was a majority vote among commissioners — at least five of them — to move forward with settlement talks prior to the scheduled August court hearing.
Balch relented by saying that was correct but reminded them he could only reveal so much without risking his license to practice law. Askew added that at least two commissioners voted against continued settlement talks.
That proposed deal also was part of the Doss statement, including the following paragraphs:
“We feel that accepting this demand would compromise our integrity and our commitment to the citizens of Rome. Furthermore, much of what has occurred in this incident has not been aligned with the transparency required in ethical open meetings. Not all commissioners have been included in the process at all times.
“In addition to not reimbursing Commissioner Cochran for his legal fees, we are asking that the Ethics Committee investigation continue. We will abide by the findings and recommendations of the Ethics Committee.”
Money has been a key issue in the continuing investigation. The initial city review involved hiring Cartersville attorney David Archer to meet with some staff, Cochran and others. The legal bill there was nearly $18,000.
On Monday, the Rome News-Tribune filed an Open Records request to see how much the city has paid Balch to date to conduct the ethics investigation, including all fees he’s filed as well as those of any staff assisting him. The city has three business days to reply to that query.
Also during the caucus, Commissioner Craig McDaniel repeatedly cited complaints from city employees who initially complained about Cochran. He asked why their voices weren’t being heard.
Stevenson snapped back that she met with city employees on Jan. 27 to hear their comments. Concerns from the four commissioners regarding that meeting were in the Doss statement as well.
Also during the meeting, some commissioners charged colleagues with “outright lying,” especially regarding the settlement talk vote.
Cochran was not present during the first two hours of the caucus, entering the Sam King Room only after the fireworks had stopped and a scheduled review of the regular meeting agenda was to begin.
Rumblings about some employees upset with Cochran surfaced in January as Stevenson was making annual committee appointments.
A subsequent commission meeting on Jan. 23 — where Cochran questioned then-Planning Director Artagus Newell over project delays — heightened tensions. It featured a direct exchange between Cochran and City Manager Sammy Rich as well.
Soon after, city administrators hired the Cartersville attorney to perform an independent investigation into the matter.
The next step was forming a three-member Ethics Investigating Committee, an expected move as Rome is among the state’s cities of ethics, which have guidelines on how to handle complaints. The appointees included Bremen Mayor Sharon Sewell, Adairsville Mayor Kenneth Carson and Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey. The committee met for the first time in late April.
Managing it all has been Balch, the city’s appointed special ethics prosecutor.
The committee basically has been on hold since May following Floyd County Superior Court Judge John “Jack” Niedrach’s issuance of a stay to allow time for a hearing regarding perceived issues with the case. The Superior Court review is now scheduled for Aug. 21 at 9 a.m. before Niedrach.
An earlier hearing was pushed back after attorneys for Cochran and the city indicated they were working toward a resolution.
“Councils for the parties have been in regular communication since this court’s order on May 12, 2023, and mutually agree they would like more time to determine whether a resolution could be reached,” states the motion filed in Floyd County Superior Court Thursday evening.
In that May 12 hearing, Niedrach determined there was enough cause to temporarily stop an Ethics Investigation Panel hearing scheduled for May 16.
The complaint itself, filed by Rome Human Resources Director Kristy Shepard, essentially alleges Cochran’s conduct toward city employees was “uncalled for and unprofessional.”
Niedrach didn’t rule on the merits of the complaint against Cochran but on the appearance of flaws in the process, which if allowed to go forward could cause harm to the commissioner’s reputation.
The Cochran investigation has seen a line of community speakers, including business leaders, rallying to his defense and questioning the city’s mounting expenses.
City commissioners themselves got into a heated exchange during a May 22 caucus over the intent of the investigation. Part of the issue is Cochran’s swing vote on key issues between the commission’s two factions: Four White, Republican-leaning members and four Black, Democratic-leaning members.
Cochran was the swing vote in naming McDaniel mayor one year and then voted for Stevenson as mayor the following January. Cochran was named mayor pro tem, a post he still holds.
Key to much of this is the Nov. 7 City Commission elections. Six seats — three posts from Ward 1 and three from Ward 3 — are on the ballot. Cochran, Stevenson and Jim Bojo are up for new terms in Ward 1; McDaniel, Bill Collins and Bonny Askew in Ward 3. Candidate qualifying starts Aug. 21.
Rome News-Tribune Executive Editor John Bailey contributed to this report.
This story is possible because of a news-sharing agreement with the Rome News-Tribune. More information can be found at northwestgeorgianews.com.