The Statham Ethics Committee dismissed its first complaint Wednesday, Nov. 6, on a unanimous 3-0 vote.
The committee heard the complaint against city council member Betty Lyle and Mayor Robert Bridges in a three-hour quasi-judicial meeting.
Catherine Corkren, who has taken the city to court repeatedly over open-meetings and open-records issues, filed the complaint, but she said she did it because she was asked to do so by residents of the town. She said she would not have known about the sewer line replacement except that she was asked to file the complaint.
Corkren said Lyle violated the ethics ordinance in three ways, two of which she said were a “slam dunk.”
She said Lyle conceded that an “appearance of wrongdoing” was created by the sewer line replacement, and Corkren contended the ethics ordinance says an appearance is all that is required.
Corkren said by email, “the ethics committee completely misconstrued this ordinance.”
The second instance Corkren cited requires an explicit admission of a conflict by a council member in the minutes of a meeting.
“It was a black and white violation of the ordinance,” she wrote in the email.
Lee Weems, a member of the committee, said Lyle abstained from the vote on the question of whether she had a conflict and other members of the council understood why she did that.
Tammy Hitchcock is the chair of the committee. Weems and Johnnie Ellington are also members of the committee. All three voted to dismiss the complaint.
Weems pointed out that the ethics committee can write a report to the city council and council can reprimand an elected official.
A third issue was whether the line replacement was a “collector” or a “lateral” line, whether the city owned the line or Lyle owned it.
Lyle told the committee the sewer line was installed across her property before she moved in. Her family bought the property on Second Street in the 1970s. The city’s sewer system was updated in the early 2000s.
David Wages, attorney for Lyle, said early in the hearing that the city owned the line and was responsible for maintenance on it. He said the city had a “prescriptive” easement that did not have to be written for it to be legal. When the line was first installed in the 1950s, he contended, a written easement was not common.
“If it’s a public easement, it doesn’t matter if they (the city) spend $1 million,” Wages said in arguing for the unwritten easement.
One of Corkren’s witnesses, Tony McDaniel, said “things have changed” since the line was installed. He said easements were not common in the 1950s, but they have become more so.
City clerk Mai Chang said an easement “needs to be on paper somewhere.”
Corkren introduced documents that were signed by Sam Powell, the city’s public works director, that said the replacement line was a “lateral” sewer line.
City workers who installed the line, signed one of the documents that said it was a “lateral” line, but they said in the meeting they understood it was a collection line.
Weems said after the vote in a Facebook post, “I won’t cast dispersions on their veracity. I suspect they were caught up in the situation, but I also suspect they helped fuel it.”
Corkren argued that a “lateral” sewer line is “always” the responsibility of the property owner.
Bridges said the problem — open sewage in two houses — “couldn’t” have been fixed as inexpensively any other way.
“We couldn’t do anything else than what we done,” Bridges said.
Chang testified she knew Bridges had said to pay the bill only after the work was done.
Lyle testified, but neither Bridges nor she called witnesses.
Corkren said Lyle knew of the problems with the sewer lines for “years,” but she did not seek an easement until after the work had been done.
The council adopted an easement for the property in August with no discussion. Corkren said no discussion was held because it had been discussed privately among Lyle, council members Dwight McCormic and Hattie Thrasher and Bridges.
Corkren was sworn in as a witness in the case at the end of her presentation.