Brookhaven’s mayor has ordered an ethics review of Councilman Bates Mattison taking a paid job at Brookhaven Innovation Academy, a new public charter school that he and the City Council helped to create.
“The mayor and council would like to clarify and have a better understanding of any legal, ethical or charter problems, violations or conflicts of interest for Mr. Mattison to serve as both a Brookhaven city councilman and director of the BIA,” said Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams in a written statement. “That is why I am calling for an independent inquiry into the questions.”
Mattison said there is no conflict between his council position—where he is also mayor pro tem—and his new job as BIA’s executive director. But, while he disagreed with the need for the ethics review, he “consented…because it will put the issue to bed.”
“It came out of nowhere for me,” Mattison said of the mayor’s call for a review. “Even though it’s a little bit painful to go through…at the end of the day, I hope it does what it’s intended to do, which is to clear the issue and show we operate according to high levels of ethics and according to the law.”
“The idea that there’s an ethics violation or something about a potential future breach [or] conflict is a stretch,” Mattison added.
Two of his fellow council members, Linley Jones and John Park, said they support the legal review. Councilman Joe Gebbia, who is a BIA board member, did not respond to an email.
“I’m a legal ethics lawyer, so I always err on the side of having perfect clarity about the ethics and legality of any move council makes, and I think that is particularly true where there may be the appearance of impropriety,” said Jones. “I think we need to avoid the appearance of impropriety in Brookhaven at all costs.”
“This action shows the city’s commitment to transparency and ethics,” said Park in an email. “I look forward to this matter being put to rest with an independent review.”
The city is already in the process of hiring a lawyer to conduct the review, said city spokeswoman Ann Marie Quill. Williams said she hopes to have the review completely quickly, preferably by the end of this week.
BIA was approved by the state earlier this year and is still in the process of forming and finding a school building in time for its August 2016 opening. Several City Council members—including Williams—had BIA board seats in the school’s formative stages, which has raised conflict questions before. Georgia’s State Charter Schools Commission ordered a reduction in the number of City Council members on the board as one condition of approving the school. Mattison previously recused himself from discussion of the city’s purchase of a building that could be used by BIA even though the city attorney said he had no direct conflict of interest.
While disagreeing that taking the BIA executive director job creates a conflict, Mattison said he understand the “optics” and that “it’s pretty easy for me to see where this is coming from.” He recounted how the council a couple of years ago, with his vote, approved funding for an education initiative that became BIA, which then formed and became his employer.
“You could say that Bates just used taxpayer funds to create a [school] that gave him a job,” Mattison said, but added that view is a “compressing of the timeline” and “connecting lines that aren’t there.”
“I don’t have that control. I don’t have that kind of power,” he said, adding that no one envisioned a job offer at the time of the educational initiative funding. He noted that BIA is an independent entity that is not funded by the city.
Two other factors appear to have heightened concern among the mayor, Jones and Park. In her statement, Williams expressed particular concern that Mattison’s job involves fundraising with a commission, which he confirmed is 10 percent of funds beyond his salary and a minimum level. And Jones said that Mattison did not tell his fellow council members about getting the job, which happened in October and was formalized about two weeks ago.
Mattison said he assumed the council was generally aware of his job because he believed—incorrectly, it turns out—that BIA discussed potential ethics issues with the city attorney as part of the hiring process. As for why he didn’t tell his city colleagues about getting the job, Mattison initially said, “I actually did. We put a press release out,” but then corrected himself to say the publicity was about events involving BIA.
“It’s not that I was trying to hide it. I was extremely proud of the fact BIA had chosen me,” Mattison said. “I’m sorry—it’s unfortunate—that it was a shock to Linley or the public.”
Mattison said he was surprised that Williams issued a public statement about the review, adding he is concerned it is “detracting” from BIA’s enthusiastic welcome among parents as well as from normal city business. He and Williams both said they hope the review concludes quickly.
“I ask that this review be made as expeditiously as possible so the council can move forward with its many pressing issues without a distraction or hint of controversy,” Williams said in her statement. “We also believe Councilman Mattison deserves a fair and impartial answer as quickly as possible.”