A more than 18-month wait on an Attorney General’s Opinion sidelined a Columbus councilman from discussing and voting on the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones did not attend Wednesday’s special-call meeting to approve the budget. As the meeting was about to adjourn, Mayor Keith Gaskin noted Jones recused himself because his sister is a city employee.
Jones had participated in discussions and voted on a 2.87-mill ad valorem tax millage increase on Sept. 8 during the city’s first public hearing. At that meeting, he was also appointed to a budget subcommittee that met the next day to discuss potential salary increases for city employees.
The councilman did not show for the Sept. 9 meeting, though.
“When we started talking about raises, I knew I would have to recuse myself, especially if my sister was going to get one,” Jones told The Dispatch on Thursday. “Either that, or they would have to break hers out separately or something. But then, looking at the budget, you’re voting for all the salaries if you vote on that.
“Until we get an Attorney General Opinion, I just want to be safe,” he added.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said at issue is how the state’s nepotism law affects Jones’ ability to discuss and vote on certain budget matters. The law says a public board member cannot appoint or employ a relative of up to the third degree — by blood or marriage — as an officer, clerk, stenographer, deputy or assistant paid by public funds. It does not apply if the relative is employed in such a position before the board member took office.
Though Turnage would not comment on how he advised Jones, he confirmed he contacted the councilman between the Sept. 8 and Sept. 9 budget meetings.
Jones’ sister was hired in March 2014 as an accounts receivable clerk in the city finance office, before Jones was first elected to the council in 2016.
Turnage said as a precaution he obtained opinions from both the Ethics Commission and AG’s Office after Jones’ election, and both indicated the sister’s employment created no general conflict for the councilman.
However, in September 2019, Jones’ sister changed positions to accounts payable clerk and received a raise, according to city records. Jones recused himself from voting on the position change, Turnage said, but questions later arose as to whether the position change triggered a conflict under the nepotism law since it happened while Jones was on the council.
Turnage told The Dispatch he found conflicting AG’s opinions for similar situations, prompting him to request one specifically for Jones’ case. His most recent correspondence from the AG’s Office indicated he would have an opinion in hand by Aug. 25.
“I’m still waiting,” Turnage said Thursday.
Turnage said the State Auditor’s Office told him the council could approve an order to allow Jones to continue voting on budget matters despite his sister’s employment, but that hasn’t happened yet.
If the newest AG opinion goes against Jones, neither are sure what happens next.
“We’ll just have to see what they say and go from there,” Jones said.
Turnage pointed out that no matter what an AG opinion says, it isn’t law.
“At the end of the day, it’s just an opinion from a lawyer,” Turnage said. “And there have been various conflicting opinions on the same subject, so I don’t know what we’ll do (if the newest opinion says Jones has a conflict). We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.