By Lee Weyhrich
CLAY — On Oct. 20 Clay City Councilwoman Becky Johnson received unofficial notification that an ethics complaint had been filed against her.
She received official notification in early November. The complaint was filed by a Clay resident who wishes to remain nameless, and revolves around two issues.
The first issue involves three contracts that were awarded to J&S Construction — the company owned by Johnson’s husband, A.J. — and together total nearly $32,000. The second issue stems from a suggestion Johnson made at a December 2012 city council meeting. On Dec. 3, 2012, Johnson suggested that the council donate $1,000 to the Clay-Pinson Chamber of Commerce to pay for prizes.
The first part of the complaint cites two contracts from the Aug. 19, 2013 consent agenda, one for $2,547.50 for work that was complete on the Clay Public Library, as well as another $20,864 wrongly listed on the agenda as library work. Clay City Manager Ronnie Dixon said that contract was actually for the disc golf course at Clay City Park. The third contract was awarded Jan. 21, 2014 for $8,500 to demolish an abandoned home on Elizabeth Drive.
Johnson said that all three of the contracts were legally awarded according to Alabama law and that she had always tried to maintain a high standard of ethics.
According to Alabama Code 36-25-11: “Unless exempt pursuant to Alabama competitive bid laws or otherwise permitted by law, no public official or public employee, or a member of the household of the public employee or the public official, and no business with which the person is associated shall enter into any contract to provide goods or services which is to be paid in whole or in part out of state, county, or municipal funds unless the contract has been awarded through a process of competitive bidding and a copy of the contract is filed with the commission. All such contract awards shall be made as a result of original bid takings, and no awards from negotiations after bidding shall be allowed. A copy of each contract, regardless of the amount, entered into by a public official, public employee, a member of the household of the public employee or the public official, and any business with which the person is associated shall be filed with the (ethics) commission within 10 days after the contract has been entered into.”
According to Dixon, these three contracts fall under “otherwise permitted by law.”
“Public Works projects under $50,000 do not have to be bid out,” Dixon said.
Two of the contracts were awarded to J&S Construction as the lowest bidder. Only one of the contracts was not bid, the $20,864 disc golf project.
Johnson believed that since the amount was under $50,000 for each of the projects, she only needed to include it on her annual “Statement of Economic Interest,” a yearly filing with the Alabama Ethics Commission that documents such items, she said.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a person who is doing what she thinks is the best for her city, and I was not aware of that,” Johnson said.
According to Dixon, he wasn’t aware the Ethics Commission had requested that all contracts, and not just those exceeding $50,000, be filed within 10 days. He added that he believed that the request was considered a courtesy to the commission, and was not actually a law.
Johnson said that now that she had been made aware of this she would immediately take steps to send copies of each contract to the commission.
It appears that J&S Construction only received three contracts over a three-year period. Dixon estimates around 300 contracts were awarded by the city during the same time.
The other charge regarding a donation to the Clay-Pinson Chamber of Commerce is actually the more complex of the two.
According to Alabama Ethics Advisory opinion 2007-20, as well as Section 94 of the Alabama Constitution, it is unethical and illegal for a member of the Chamber of Commerce board of directors, who is also a member of council, to influence a vote, even if it ultimately serves the public good.
Near the end of 2012 Johnson suggested that the council give $1,000 to the Clay-Pinson Chamber of Commerce to cover the expense of parade prizes. The official council minutes of Dec. 12, 2012 states that Johnson “thanked the Chamber of Commerce for providing the parade prizes and suggested that the city make a donation to cover their prize expense.”
According to an Oct. 26, 1987 Attorney General Opinion by then-Attorney General Don Siegelman (AGO #88-00030), a city may not “legally appropriate funds to nonprofit private organizations or nonprofit corporations even though they serve the public good.” The document further states that a municipality “may, in some instances, contract with such organizations for services to be provided to the municipality provided that the funds expended are for the provision of services which the municipality itself could provide.”
One of these exceptions, Dixon said, is for promotional materials for the city. According to Johnson, the parade prizes fall under that umbrella. Johnson did recuse herself of the vote for those funds, but it’s still a matter of public record that the expenditure was her suggestion.
Johnson said that she had always tried to do what was right and that she had no idea this was an ethical issue. Even the news that someone thought she was capable of intentionally doing something unethical came as a blow.
“I’ve done this (for the community), and I’ve worked so hard, why would (anyone) retaliate against me?” Johnson asked.