Thursday, May 11, 2023–6:27 p.m.
-John Bailey, Rome News-Tribune-
Rome City Commissioner Mark Cochran filed a motion Thursday afternoon to have a judge block what his attorney as “an improper ethics investigation…and holding a public evidentiary hearing stemming from a fatally flawed process.”
Floyd County Superior Court Judge John “Jack” Niedrach will hear arguments in the motion at 1 p.m. on Friday.
The motion filed in Floyd County Superior Court names the City of Rome as well as the three members of the Ethics Investigation Panel — Bremen Mayor Sharon Sewell, Adairsville Mayor Kenneth Carson, and Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey — as defendants in the case and seeks to stop them from proceeding what the motion terms as an “unfounded ethics complaint.”
The panel was scheduled to meet Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. in City Hall to consider an ethics complaint against Cochran filed by Rome Human Resources Director Kristy Shepard. In that complaint, Shepard alleges Cochran’s conduct toward city employees as “uncalled for and unprofessional.”
“Mr. Cochran has been subjected to an improper and politically motivated ethics investigation since questioning a city department during a Rome City Commission meeting on January 23, 2023,” the motion states. “Consequently, Mr. Cochran is now forced to seek relief from the court.”
The motion asks the court to step in and stop the proceedings alleging a number of issues. Firstly the motion states that the process by which the Ethics Investigation Panel is proceeding is arbitrary and does not comply with the procedures required by the City of Rome.
If allowed to proceed, Cochran’s attorney Jeremy Berry stated in the motion, that it will cause immediate and irreparable harm to Cochran’s reputation. The motion claims the complaint against Cochran is “unfounded and retaliatory” and would force Cochran to go through a process that “lacks merit and has failed to follow proper procedure.”
The motion cites a letter from the appointed special ethics prosecutor representing the city, Chris Balch, notifying Cochran of the scope of the hearing.
Balch’s letter from May 5 states that the evidence at the hearing will include testimony stemming from the Jan. 23 meeting as well as testimony and evidence that Cochran sought to use his position as a city commissioner to get preferential treatment on a sidewalk project on Technology Parkway and on March 8, 2021, when, the letter states, that he refused to acknowledge a “direct or indirect” financial interest during a committee discussion regarding the city’s employee wellness program.
“That was true of most of the city commission, but only Commissioner Cochran elected to argue and belittle the staff and others’ competence and integrity in raising the issue,” Balch wrote in a letter to Berry.
However, Berry argues that the ethics complaint filed by the city’s HR director doesn’t assert any violation and no vote was taken, which is necessary to violate the code of ethics section governing conflicts of interest.
Minutes from the March 8 and March 22 meeting back up that assertion. Five city commissioners determined they had a conflict of interest with one hospital or another and the city’s contract with Redmond continued. No votes were taken.
“As such, the investigating committee should have dismissed the ethics complaint. Instead, the committee has added their own facts to the complaint,” the motion states.
The motion further states that the defendants violated the Open Meetings Act when the panel held a closed meeting on April 26. Balch stated that meeting via Zoom was held to discuss “procedural and scheduling issues.”
“The closed meeting was not held for any purpose exempt under the act…a scheduling discussion is not sufficient to close a meeting,” the motion stated. “Furthermore, another meeting was scheduled for May 2, 2023, and open to the public to discuss the same issues Mr. Balch alleged were the basis for closing their initial meeting. This kind of discrepancy is the exact reason the (Open Meetings Act) was created, to interrupt ‘closed door politics and the potential abuse of individuals and the misuse of power such policies entail.'”