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Oh sanctioned following ethics board opinion

By Grace Lovins

After the Birmingham Ethics Board issued a preliminary advisory opinion against Samuel Oh this August, the city commission voted at their meeting on Monday, November 14, to sanction Oh with a written reprimand and required education.

Oh, a member of the city’s Triangle District Corridor Improvement Authority, was accused of misusing his title on a petition which asked residents to sign for changes to the Triangle District’s master plan as well as disseminating disinformation even after he was provided with the correct information multiple times by city staff. The ethics board advisory opinion, given on August 16, was issued at the request of city manager Tom Markus, who observed some conflict between Oh and city staff.

During the ethics board meeting at which the opinion was handed down, Oh maintained his innocence and challenged city staff saying that the city was overreaching in their interpretation of official documents. He additionally stated that, although it violated the ethics code, he would have still included his title in the petition because it would have been unethical not to.

The commission collectively agreed that Oh should be sanctioned, but opinions on what the sanction should look like varied. Mary Kucharek, city attorney, informed the commission that the ordinance doesn’t specify what response would be appropriate, but the sanction could range from a written notice to removal from the board. Commissioner Andrew Haig felt that removal may be too severe in this circumstance, but a message did need to be sent that officials have expectations to uphold.

“We don’t want to give the wrong message in one direction or the other direction. Mistakes happen…My feeling is that a formal notification of reprimand would be appropriate. I don’t feel at this time removal would be appropriate because it may send too harsh of a message for volunteers, but the message needs to be passed that there are expectations to be met,” Haig said.

Commissioner Clinton Baller emphasized throughout the discussion that Oh demonstrated a reckless disregard for the truth, and as such he feels Oh should be removed from his position.

“I’m compelled to remark upon reckless disregard for the truth. That is willful, there was intent, and our First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, and it goes so far as to say that you can say almost anything about a public official and get away with it unless there was reckless disregard for the truth,” Baller stated.

Mayor Therese Longe concurred with Haig, saying that if Oh were to be removed it could have a chilling effect on city volunteers. A proposed solution in line with Haig and Longe’s comments recommended that Oh receives a written reprimand and is required to watch a video presentation of the ethics board explaining the meaning and purpose of the ethics code, and confirm that he watched it in full. If he doesn’t comply, he will be given the option to voluntarily resign, or the city would move forward with the removal process.

Commissioners voted 7-0 to sanction Oh for nonconformity with the ethics ordinance and issue a written reprimand telling him to cease the actions that brought him to the ethics board. Oh will also have to watch the video of the ethics board’s explanation and sign that the meeting was watched in full.


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