It’s understandable that former City Commissioner Kathy Carter wanted to clear her name after the City Board of Ethics penalized her $1,000 two years ago for the extraordinary steps she took to get her rental property approved for occupancy. Nobody likes to be branded unethical, especially after building a reputation for working hard to improve blighted parts of the city and make decent housing available to people who sorely need it.
Carter chose to appeal the ethics board decision while her co-defendant, City Manager Anthony Massey, paid his civil fine. Although the City Commission ultimately fired him, he ended up with a severance package of nearly $100,000 and found a new job in Georgia.
Unless she pursues additional litigation, Carter’s appeal has come to an end with last week’s ruling by Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate that the Board of Ethics was justified in its decision.
Carter – and everyone else who was involved or just took an interest in the case – should put this affair in perspective. Yes, a finding of unethical conduct is a bitter pill to swallow, but not all unethical conduct is created equal. Some violate standards out of pure, unalloyed greed. The former commissioner does not appear to be of that ilk, however aggressively she may have pushed to get her way and manipulate City Hall into issuing a certificate of occupancy for her Hoge Avenue duplex when it lacked the requisite framing and electrical inspections. There was no accusation that she bribed anyone to make it happen.
Local government has a checkered history of local politicians meddling in the day-to-day business of city administration. It’s hard for elected leaders to refuse when constituents call asking for their help. Although Carter was acting as a private citizen when she complained city inspectors were harassing her – partly, she said, because she’d voted to phase out longevity pay incentives – the commissioner also depicted herself as coming to defense of other private citizens who’ve been exasperated in their own dealings with municipal government. Mayor Gippy Graham made a similar point in the ethics hearing, saying he’d heard complaints from business people that inspectors sometimes seemed to take delight in their misery.
What set Carter apart from most individuals was her ability, as a commissioner, to gain immediate access to the mayor and the city manager to make her case. Massey, in particular, went to great lengths assisting her cause. When no one else in the codes enforcement department would cooperate, he took it upon himself to sign a temporary certificate of occupancy even though Carter’s property had not been approved. The housing units did pass inspection later.
While Carter maintained on appeal that no evidence connected her actions to the outcome attained through Massey’s intervention, the judge found she did get what she wanted, “and there is no other explanation for how that end was achieved than that she intentionally used her position as a city commissioner to receive it.”
If she wants to pursue additional appeals, that’s her prerogative. However, we believe she’d clear her name more meaningfully by admitting her inside fight against City Hall was a mistake. She can help redeem herself by carrying on the “great service” Judge Wingate praised in reference to her property renovation campaign. Who knows? She might even win a second act in local politics. One lapse of ethics need not be an unforgivable offense.