ATLANTA -- The two-year battle between the Springfield Council and the city’s mayor washed up at the feet of the state’s highest court Monday, and the Supreme Court justices fired multiple questions at the attorneys.
At issue is whether Mayor Jeffrey Northway can be removed from office based on an ethics complaint alleging he was unprofessional and made improper statements.
His attorney, Charles Herman, said the complaint and the city charter it was based upon, was too vague and that Northway had a free-speech right to make his statements. He also said the city council didn’t follow proper procedures by discussing the complaint in secret session and not giving Northway the right to call witnesses and defend himself.
One of the allegations is based on an overheard conversation the mayor was having with his wife in which he expressed his frustrations and lack of respect for the members of the council. The complaint charged him with undermining the authority of the council.
Justice David Nahmias asked the council’s attorney, Richard Rafter, if the Supreme Court could impeach one of the justices for undermining the integrity of the court.
Rafter answered no, but he added that Northway’s comments were personal attacks.
“Have you watched some of the political ads?” Nahmias asked him.
“Have you read some of our dissents?” quipped Justice Harold Melton.
In the same conversation with his wife, Northway also mentioned a real-estate issue the council had discussed while behind closed doors. The complaint accused him of violating the state’s Open Meetings Act, which governs when officials can hold secret meetings.
“How can be he found guilty of violating this statute by talking to his wife?” asked Melton. “Explain that.”
Melton, who served as the governor’s counsel and dealt with the Open Meetings Act before joining the high court, said the law gives officials a limited right to withhold specific information but doesn’t require them to.
Justice Robert Benham expressed concerns about the city’s removal procedures and whether Northway had the opportunity to defend himself against specific charges.
Rafter said he did.
“You have to look at the whole process,” he said, noting that after the city’s ethics committee found the complaint baseless, the council had the final say and it had access to the written response Northway gave to the committee.
When Northway refused the council’s demand that he resign over the complaint, the matter wound up before Effingham County Superior Court Judge Chief William Woodrum Jr. who sided with the council after a three-day trial in June. That decision is what Northway is appealing to the high court.
The Supreme Court only allows 40 minutes for oral arguments, but it has copies of all the legal documents and trial transcript. It typically hands down a decision in four months.