Bates Mattison
Bates Mattison

Brookhaven’s mayor has ordered an ethics review of City Councilman Bates Mattison taking a paid job at Brookhaven Innovation Academy, a new public charter school that he and the 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, which pays $60,000 a year. 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 accord-ing 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.

BIA’s board quickly responded to one of Williams’ cited concerns by removing a 10 percent commission he was to earn on contributions he solicits above a $45,000 threshold. In a press release, the BIA board said it also found that such commissions are “discouraged” by the ethics policy of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Two of Mattison’s 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,” Jones said.

“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,” Park said in an email. “I look forward to this matter being put to rest with an independent review.”

The city hired the Marietta law firm Bentley, Bentley & Bentley to conduct the review, and its opinion is expected this week, said city spokeswoman Ann Marie Quill. 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 planned August 2016 opening.

Several council members—including Williams—had BIA board seats in the school’s formative stages. Georgia’s State Charter Schools Commission ordered a reduction in the number of 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.

Jones said that Mattison did not tell his fellow council members about getting the job, which happened in October and was formalized earlier this month. 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.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.