By MARINA WATERS
Officers within the Jonesborough Police Department were recently gifted $1,000 each. And during the Town of Jonesborough’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting on Monday night, members of the public had a lot to say about it.
During a Fourth of July celebration in downtown, Lighthouse Baptist Church donated $1,000 to each officer within the Jonesborough Police Department, Town Attorney Jim Wheeler said. He also said the donation was “a gift from them individually, not through the town,” but Wheeler looked into the legality of the gift as concerns rolled in.
“The (district attorney) had already been contacted and he indicated he found no issue with this,” Wheeler said. ”I also went behind him and reviewed state law and found nothing that would prohibit this.”
Wheeler also said he examined the BMA’s ethics policy, specifically the section on acceptance of gratuities.
“The language dealing with what cannot be accepted is a gift for the performance of an act or refraining from the performance of an act that he or she would be expected to perform or refrain from performing on the regular course of his or her duties,” Wheeler said.
“I don’t believe there was any issue here with our ethics policy and conveyed that to the town administrator. Ultimately what he ended up deciding — but again absolutely on my advice — was that this could not be reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence an action.”
However, citizens saw the matter differently.
Jonesborough resident Deb Burger took to the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting and said she felt the gift is in violation of the ethics policy.
“When we say ‘thank you’ to someone with a large amount of money, that is a reward for their action in executing town business,” Burger said. “That is not ambiguous … when someone gives $1,000 to a person as a ‘thank you’ for their service, that is in reference to their past actions in executing town business.”
Burger also said she felt it set a precedent for future organizations wanting to make donations to those within town departments.
“Having opened this door and set this precedent,” Burger said, “what other department’s individual employees will receive large financial gifts from what other private organizations? Do we have a list? Do we have a policy? … By definition, a large financial gift to a public servant by a private entity is corruption. I think you all need to think really hard about what kind of doors you have open here.”
Another Jonesborough resident, Jay Jarman, said he was “disappointed” in the board’s actions and called for a change in the ethics policy.
“This is done,” Jarman said. “I think the damage is done. But I think this needs to change. I want to see all of you do something to change this. The ethics policy needs to change so this does not happen again.”
Wheeler said he made his suggestion to the town administrator based on the current policy, which he said was “standard” and similar to that of other cities and counties throughout the state. Meanwhile, Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest said the board could consider a policy change in the future..
“If the board wishes to change our policy,” Vest said. ”We will change our policy.”
The next BMA meeting is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 10, at 7 p.m. at town hall, 123 Boone St., Jonesborough.