FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. —Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills received a slap on the wrist July 6 after a county ethics panel investigation into her texting practices.
A complaint filed in March charged that Mills improperly deleted text messages from her personal phone contrary to county policy.
Forsyth County resident Rene Guidry filed the complaint against Mills claiming the commissioner “violated the Georgia [Open] Records Act on multiple occasions by deleting text messages between her, developers with pending zoning issues, other county commissioners and zoning attorneys.”
The panel first met in May to determine if there was a need for an evidentiary hearing for further review. That hearing was held June 21.
Then in July, the panel reconvened to issue its conclusion and gave Mills a written warning about the deletions, which it determined were subject to the county’s retention policy.
In the future, Mills said she plans to rectify the situation by keeping all county business only on her county phone.
She’s also hoping to halt any possible problems in the future for other elected officials. She said she wants the county’s “lack of a formal text-specific policy” addressed immediately at an upcoming board workshop.
“While the county does have general data retention policies, the county has never adopted a ‘text message’ specific policy concerning the storage of text messages on official county phones, much less personal ones,” Mills said. “The county has never installed the digital tools required to compile and maintain all text communications involving county personnel.”
For elected officials, there are three consequences for being found guilty of violating the county’s ethics ordinance:
Written warning, censure or reprimand
Removal from office to the extent provided by state law; and/or
Repayment to the county of any unjust enrichment
Ethics panel Chairman Charles Pollack said he didn’t think any of Mills’ communications violated the county’s retention policy.
According to the county policy, messages documenting the formulation and adoption of policies and procedures and the management of agency programs or functions — for example case file management, constituent correspondence, periodic reports or budget documents — must be retained long term.
However, Pollack said the panel heard testimony from Mills and saw written materials regarding her personal policy of deleting messages.
“In one case she said she automatically deletes them,” Pollack said. “Then in another case when she testified she said she manually deletes the messages when she has a space issue on her phone.”
But Mills’ personal policy “probably violates the Open Records Act and violates the county’s policy on retention,” Pollack said.
“It’s a blanket policy and doesn’t make any distinction on whether it’s a substantive communication or non-substantive communication,” Pollack said. “It’s totally indiscriminate.”
He said he didn’t see any communication regarding substantive matters like zonings or similar topics that would be subject to the retention policy.
But he does think her personal policy of indiscriminatingly deleting messages creates a dangerous situation where, intentional or not, a substantive correspondence could be deleted.
Ethics panel member Mike O’Hagan said he hoped Mills wasn’t intentionally trying to remove information necessary for open records.
“I understand keeping texts can be very cumbersome,” O’Hagan said. “I keep a year’s worth of texts still. I don’t think this warrants anything as extreme as removal of office. I think you need to be more careful.”
Guidry said July 6 he felt vindicated with the outcome of the panel’s investigation. He said he received feedback from others claiming he was on a “witch hunt.”
“I didn’t have an outcome,” Guidry said. “I had evidence, felt the law was violated, presented it and whatever the panel decided I would be happy with it.”
The process was “one of the hardest things” Guidry said he’s done in his life, but he’s happy he did it.
“It’s ultimately about accountability,” Guidry said. “Why do we waste our hours coming to meetings? It’s to hold the government accountable.”