Saturday, Apr. 1, 2023–3:48 p.m.
-John Bailey, Rome News-Tribune-
Attorneys for Rome City Commissioner Mark Cochran contested the findings of an investigation into allegations of misconduct primarily stemming from comments he made during a Jan. 23 public meeting.
During that meeting, Cochran challenged the procedures used by the Rome engineering department stating that he felt those procedures had led to the delay and eventual change in development plans for the Pemberton project off North Broad Street Extension. He also alluded to other past issues regarding the planning department during that exchange.
Part of that meeting included a terse exchange between Cochran and City Manager Sammy Rich, in which Rich stated that the city commission meeting wasn’t the appropriate venue for that discussion.
Shortly thereafter members of the planning department filed complaints regarding Cochran’s accusations and stated his assertion that the department had not done its job was not factual.
The city enlisted David Archer at Archer and Lovell P.C. to begin conducting an independent investigation on Feb. 6. The investigation was finalized on March 20 and the findings of that investigation were provided Friday to the Rome News-Tribune through an Open Records Act request.
In that investigation, Archer outlined the process of the investigation as well as the findings.
“The scope of this investigation is to determine if the staff complaints against Commissioner Cochran that do not allege violations of the City Code of Ethics, have merit or not,” Archer wrote in the memorandum. “The scope of the investigation does not include a determination as to whether or not Commissioner Cochran has violated the City Code of Ethics; but to rather determine if the staff’s expressed concerns rise to the level to justify submitting the concerns, pursuant to the process outlined in the City Code of Ethics, to an Investigating Committee to make that determination.”
The findings in that report state that Cochran’s statements “were untrue, exceeded his authority as a city commissioner, as provided in the city charter; and, violated the city’s personnel policies, have been established and have merit.”
Other findings stemming from the investigation determined that Cochran was not outside the scope of his role as a commissioner to inquire into financial and purchasing policies as well as that there is no city ordinance concerning a city commission criticizing a particular staff member or department.
The memorandum recommended the city adopt an ordinance prohibiting “offensive and divisive conduct toward city employees.” However, Archer stated that the concerns voiced by planning staff members rise to the level to submit the concerns to an investigative committee.
The next step would be for a staff member to file an ethics complaint and, if done, Mayor Sundai Stevenson would then empanel an investigative committee to hear those claims. As of Friday, the city had not received an ethics complaint regarding Cochran’s actions.
Cochran strikes back
A letter sent to Stevenson and other members of the City Commission on Friday contested the findings of the investigation.
“There are many flaws in Mr. Archer’s report, which, if left unaddressed, are highly prejudicial to Commissioner Cochran and, frankly, harmful to the city,” the letter by Cochran’s attorneys Jeremy T. Berry and Joseph J. Seigelman stated.
The letter contests the three findings made in the Archer report: That Cochran’s statements on Jan. 23 violate the City Personnel Policy Manual, that an ordinance should be adopted prohibiting offensive conduct toward city employees, and that an ethics complaint be filed against Cochran.
“None of these are rational or justified conclusions,” the letter stated.
The primary point Cochran’s attorneys argue is that he is not a city employee and is not subject to the personnel policy manual. They further state that an ordinance against offensive speech would be “irresponsible and against sound public policy” as well as violate a commissioner’s First Amendment right to free speech.
The letter also states the allegations of unethical conduct were made to send a message to the city commissioner.
“While any allegation of unethical conduct should be taken seriously, those raised against Commissioner Cochran have no basis in fact and appear to be made in retaliation for the commissioner’s exercise of free speech at the Jan. 23 commission meeting,” the letter stated.
Lastly, the letter calls into question the cost of the investigation, which took just over 68 billable hours and at $250 an hour, plus mileage, cost the city $17,577.37.
“it is highly concerning,” the letter states, “that such a one-sided and flawed report could be prepared and issued at the request of a city official, not to mention presumably at a significant cost to taxpayers.”