Clinton Baller comes before city's ethics board
Birmingham City Commissioner Clinton Baller appeared at a hearing of the city's ethics board on Tuesday, September 1, relative to resident Donna Klein's formal complaint alleging he libeled her on the social media site NextDoor and via a newsletter he disseminates through email that he sends as a city commissioner, and through his public Facebook page. Klein filed her complaint with the city July 27; Baller sent a written response August 24 disputing her allegations, with his attorney, Matthew Erard, asserting that conduct for a city commissioner “is limited to official business,” and that commentary made on his blog is private conversations that could not violate the code of ethics. Sheldon Klein, Donna's husband representing her and an attorney with Butzel Long, responded that he took exception that it was private. “He has this on 'Clinton Baller City Commissioner' letterhead, and 'Clinton Baller City Commissioner' Facebook page,” he said. “I understand he has a private Clinton Baller Facebook page. I don't think this the world is divided into private and public behavior.” Sheldon Klein noted that city ordinance requires city officials to be bound by conduct for public figures, including city commissioners. Among the policies, it is written that “each city official, employee, or advisor must earn and honor the public trust by integrity and conduct.” Further sections state, “All city officials and employees must avoid conflicts between their private interests and the public interest. Public officials and employees must: Be independent, impartial, and responsible to the people.” The ethics board unanimously voted to deny Baller summary disposition of the complaint as well as summary decision to deny that there was no genuine issue of material fact to move forward. Board member John Schrot said, “Based on some of the allegations made by Ms. Klein to harass a private citizen, and to utilize an official newsletter, there appears to be genuine issues of material fact.” Donna Klein, who is a local neighborhood lead on NextDoor, stated that, “I am here today because Clinton Baller gratuitously and falsely demeaned me. He was banned by NextDoor. Rather than accepting the consequences, he launched a tirade – at me, in his official capacity.” She noted she was not responsible for his ban from the social media site after what some felt were objectionable posts against the parking structure vote in 2019, but she bore the brunt of his outrage. “Those comments against me are still up – which he could have taken down. He was not honest, he was not fair, and he was not ethical to a citizen,” Klein said. “I am not on trial. I acted in complete compliance with the site as a moderator. He violated the city's ethics ordinance.” To questions from the three-member board, Baller said his newsletter is “just an email consisting of several compiled writings that goes out to people who may have subscribed. It's a digest of my opinions.” “These are not city properties, they're from you individually?” Schrot asked. Baller responded, “Yes, absolutely.” Member Sophie Fierro-Share asked him what his purpose was in posting his opinion of Klein. “I disagree that I was posting my opinion. I was posting the facts as I saw them,” Baller retorted. He also said he uses his commissioner moniker because he believes he is like politicians he follows, congressman and senators, who send out newsletters. “I never thought I should remove it.” To Baller, it is a free speech issue. “It's not my job to avoid offending people. This is about a legislator's job to speak freely.” “The ethics board is not designed to squash free speech,” Fierro-Share stated. “This commission is not out to get you.” Board chair Jim Robb asked Baller if he was aware that the board of ethics had adjudicated a case “almost exactly like this? It was opined that it was a violation of city ordinance because it was on his official letterhead and it was determined it was not official city business.” The case, against former traffic and safety board member David Weisz, dealt with Weisz' activities against the transit center in Troy, where his email signature block listed himself as a member of the traffic and safety board. The three board members unanimously voted to adjourn the Baller complaint meeting until Friday, September 11, at 9:30 a.m. in order to review the Weisz ruling and review the city ethics ordinances.