Ethics panelists send bus cases to school board

Friday, October 9, 2009

Two complaints about the administration of Marshall County's school bus garage were sent to the interim director of schools by the County Ethics Committee on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Ethics Committee's decision to send another case to the state prosecutor's office has not been executed. The committee voted July 13 to refer allegations against former County Commission Chairman Sam Smith to District Attorney Chuck Crawford.

County Attorney Ginger Shofner explained the delay saying Commissioner Mary Ann Neill, former chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, had asked her to write a cover letter. It's for Neill to sign and for Crawford to have an introduction to the massive file on allegations about Smith's sale of a land purchase option to Waste Management.

Shofner was at the Tuesday night meeting of the Ethics Committee, now led by Commissioner Jimmy Stitt. Shofner substantiated Stitt's previously announced opinion that if the committee was to consider the two complaints about bus garage administration, then they should be handled separately.

However, Shofner continued to provide legal counsel as requested, telling the committee that while there may have been something criminal in the conduct of bus garage management, none of the named defendants are elected public officials.

The state ethics law and the county's ethics policy address conduct of elected officials, so the complaints against now-former Schools Director Stan Curtis, his human resources director, Mitchell Byrd, and former transportation supervisor Glenn Ezell are not subject to that law.

The complaints by former bus driver Larry Barlar and Randy Lowe, the former lead mechanic at the garage, allege: bus garage facilities were improperly used to benefit friends and relatives; school bus tires were sold before they were worn out; and personnel files were released with confidential information on display.

"None of these come to the level of ethical questions," Shofner said.

Under the state law, ethical questions surround the use of discretion and influence by an elected official, the attorney explained.

"It's apples and oranges," she said. "I'd send it back to the department."

Stitt officially clarified that Roy Dukes, who's been serving as assistant director of schools, had been appointed to be the interim director since the School Board voted to dismiss Curtis on Monday.

Employment of Byrd and Ezell were briefly discussed. Stitt noted that Byrd had been reporting to Curtis.

The committee chairman turned to Shofner for additional advice and she said that since Curtis isn't the director anymore, then the case could be considered by the Board of Education.

Commissioner Rocky Bowden, a member of the Ethics Committee and a retired vice principal at Forrest School, asked if there were any legitimate ethical claims.

Shofner indicatated that she thought not.

Bowden then moved to "forward these to the interim director of schools, Roy Dukes."

Seconding Bowden's motion was Craig Michael, a member of the school board. The vote was unanimous.

Stitt announced he would deliver the complaints to Dukes, and Bowden suggested the complainants be notified of what was being done.

After the meeting Shofner confirmed that the committee had the option of doing what it's done with Smith's case -- send then to the District Attorneys General Office -- but that the panel elected against taking that step.

Later, when it was noted that allegations of criminal activities are included in the complaints by Lowe and Barlar, Shofner replied, "They are, but you have to talk about policies and procedures.

"The people here don't have the respective department's rules and regulations before them," Shofner said.

"The Department of Education will take the appropriate action," she said.