Bates Mattison
Bates Mattison

Brookhaven City Councilman Bates Mattison’s other job as executive director of the Brookhaven Innovation Academy creates no ethical conflicts as long as he stays out of any BIA-related council discussions and votes, according to a legal opinion ordered by Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams.

Mattison said he is pleased the opinion shows that “one, I did nothing wrong, and, two, there’s no conflict going forward.”

The Nov. 25 opinion from Marietta attorney R. Randall Bentley Sr. also “strongly” recommends that Mattison not receive any fundraising bonus from BIA—a change the school’s board already made shortly after the legal review was announced—and that he comply with financial disclosure laws. Bentley billed the city $8,662.50 for the opinion.

“Now, as an employee of the BIA, Mr. Mattison should recuse himself from all matters, including discussions and votes, brought before the mayor and council and the Development Authority regarding BIA,” Bentley writes. “The best practice would be that Mr. Mattison leave the dais and exit any meeting, conference or forum at which any matter regarding the BIA is before the council or the Development Authority.”

“I’m really glad that we have this opinion and I think it will clear the air on any questions that have been raised,” said Williams. “I do think it’s not a green light, but a caution light, to Mr. Mattison moving forward on how he does need to recuse himself…and I hope he does monitor his donor list” for those who might have city business, she added.

BIA is a new public charter school started through efforts by City Council. The state approved BIA’s charter earlier this year and the school is in the process of forming. BIA is now an independent nonprofit with a largely private board that also includes Mattison’s fellow City Councilman Joe Gebbia. Mattison, an original BIA board member, was hired earlier this month as BIA’s Interim Executive Director.

Mattison’s hiring was not immediately announced and was a surprise to his fellow council members. On Nov. 16, Williams ordered an independent legal review of any ethical conflicts, expressing particular concern about Mattison’s BIA contract including a 10 percent commission on funds raised for the school.

Bentley’s opinion says Mattison would run into serious ethical trouble if he participated in council votes related to BIA, as that would be “improper and illegal.” But, Bentley notes, Mattison has recused himself from BIA-related discussions at City Council and the city’s Development Authority since late August, well before BIA hired him. He also recused himself when BIA came up at the Dec. 1 City Council meeting, after the opinion’s release.

Bentley notes that Mattison was involved in talks and a vote about the city’s potential purchase of a Skyland Drive office building that BIA was eyeing as a school location. But, Bentley adds, that appears to be moot as BIA board minutes show the school cannot occupy that building by the start of classes. BIA recently approached the council about acquiring land next to the building.

Brookhaven city code allows council members to have a financial stake in groups it does business with, if the council member discloses that interest, abstains from votes related to it, and doesn’t profit from private information, Bentley’s opinion says.

“I very much hope that it puts the issue to bed,” Mattison said of Bentley’s opinion. “My reading of it is very clear. There were no ethics violations.”

He acknowledged that the review led BIA to realize a commission on fundraising is “frowned upon” within the industry, as well as raising the council’s concerns that he would have to recuse himself often if donors had city business.

“I think the change in his compensation was a good move,” said Williams. “That was problematic and has been cleared up.”

She said the opinion was “well worth the effort and the modest expense.”

But Mattison said that, while he consented to the council’s desire for the review, he thought it was a distraction from city business and bad for the city’s reputation.

“To an outsider, all they saw was, ‘Brookhaven—ethics investigation,’” Mattison said. “That can be harmful when you’re talking about economic development for a city,” he said, adding that is a main motivation for founding BIA.

John Ruch

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