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Ethics panel deliberates complaint against Commissioner Mills

Deleted text messages at the heart of investigation



FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga . – In about 30 days, Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills will find out what, if any, consequences she may face from a recent ethics complaint filed against her.

The Forsyth County Ethics Panel met June 21 for an evidentiary hearing to hear from both sides of the complaint against Mills relating to her communications habits.

Filed in March, the complaint charges Mills improperly deleted text messages from her personal phone contrary to county policy. The panel first met in May to determine if there was a need for an evidentiary hearing for further review.

It will reconvene in roughly 30 days after investigating the findings from the hearing.

Forsyth County resident Rene Guidry filed the complaint against Mills claiming the commissioner “violated the Georgia [Open] Records Act on multiple occasions by deleting text messages between her, developers with pending zoning issues, other county commissioners and zoning attorneys.”

According to the county policy, messages documenting the formulation and adoption of policies and procedures and the management of agency programs or functions — for example case file management, constituent correspondence, periodic reports or budget documents — must be retained long term. 

Both parties’ attorneys presented their cases, including Donald P. Geary representing Guidry and E. Logan Butler representing Mills.

Butler maintained that Mills denies violating the Forsyth County Ethics Ordinance and the Georgia Open Records Act.

Mills spoke as a witness and said while she deleted every text message prior to the initial complaint filed in March, it was due to a limited amount of storage on her cell phone. She went on to say due to issues with her county-issued cellphone including spotty service, it was easier for her to give out her personal number to communicate with constituents.

She acknowledged that while she should have kept any substantial messages, she said she believes there weren’t any worth keeping.

Butler said that Guidry was unable to provide evidence that a violation occurred and the complaint was mostly speculative.

“This isn’t a situation where just because you’re an elected official, your entire life is an open book,” Butler said. “That’s not how it’s set up, what the law says or how the ethics ordinance is set up.”

Butler said the ordinance pertains to conflicts of interest, financial disclosures or incompatible service, but doesn’t specifically talk about retention of records including text messages.

“There’s a little bit of misuse of the process here in (Guidry’s) intent in going through this,” Butler said. “(The Open Records Request policy) is certainly not to make a trap for these people.”

Geary said it was hard to believe that over the past four years of Mills’ term as commissioner, she did not receive a single message that would be substantial enough to keep.

He went on to say Butler confused Open Records Requests and the retention policy. Geary said the policy is clear and requires retention of communications that are anything other than transitory.

“It’s about transparency to the community and the people of Forsyth County,” Geary said. “There is none here. This is black and white. I admit Mr. Guidry can’t prove it with Commissioner Mills’ communications because she deleted every one of them.”

Geary said they had to go through other open records requests of messages saved by other county commissioners in order to obtain information for the panel.

“The other commissioners are keeping these,” Geary said. “Until March 3, this commissioner had zero (messages saved) in over four years. She acknowledges she communicates with everybody all the time about anything. The probability that in her records nothing was substantive is zero.”

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