Councilwoman critical of inquiry to ethics panel

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By Jesef Williams

Lancaster City Councilwoman Blackmon-Brace thinks City Administrator Helen Sowell has a personal vendetta against her.

Blackmon-Brace said she doesn’t understand why Sowell didn’t contact her before writing a letter to the state Ethics Commission about the councilwoman’s bail bonding business.

Sowell said it was her job to make sure that no council members were in violation of any ethics laws, and that’s why she contacted the Ethics Commission.

Blackmon-Brace has owned and operated Blackmon-Brace’s Bonding Co. for about 13 years. Her business bonds people out of jail who appear before municipal judges in the city.

During Blackmon-Brace’s first term on council (2003-06), then-City Administrator Steve Willis wrote the Ethics Commission seeking an opinion about four council members and their respective occupations causing a possible conflict with their positions on council.

Of those four, Blackmon-Brace was the only council member whom Cathy Hazelwood, the commission’s deputy director and general counsel, considered questionable.

Hazelwood said then that Blackmon-Brace shouldn’t be allowed to represent clients in municipal court.

However, a ministerial matter – such as completing or filing a bail bond – which does not require discretion on the part of court personnel, is not considered to be making an appearance.

Appearing before the court representing a client is making an appearance and is not ministerial, Hazelwood said.

Since Blackmon-Brace was elected to council in November, Sowell, who became city administrator in 2007, said she wanted another opinion from the Ethics Commission because of new laws passed since the 2006 opinion.

Sowell said she was also concerned that Hazelwood didn’t understand the specifics of Lancaster’s municipal court system.

In 2006, Sowell was the city court administrator when Willis requested the opinion.

In November 2008, Blackmon-Brace was elected to City Council.

That same month, Sowell wrote Hazelwood requesting another opinion and got a response dated Nov. 26, 2008.

Sowell and City Attorney Mandy Powers-Norrell shared Hazelwood’s November response with Blackmon-Brace before the first City Council meeting in early January.

Hazelwood wrote in the Nov. 26 response: “It is my opinion that the Ethics Reform Act prohibits Lancaster City Council member Linda Blackmon-Brace from representing clients before the municipal court, to include meeting with the judge to sign off on the bond.”

Blackmon-Brace said she temporarily stopped signing bonds in response to the opinion.

Blackmon-Brace wrote a letter to Hazelwood on Jan. 16 explaining her  bail bondsman responsibilities and adherence to court procedures.

In her letter, Blackmon-Brace said Willis and Sowell didn’t explain that the only time she appeared in court was to sign the bond form, after bond had been set.

All the paperwork pertaining to Blackmon-Brace Bonding is done in my office,” Blackmon-Brace wrote.

Blackmon-Brace  also referenced the 2006 opinion.

As you stated in your decision on April 18, 2006, I do not file any paperwork for bail bonding with City of Lancaster,” she wrote. “Bail bonding paperwork must go through the Clerk of Court.”

Hazelwood responded to Blackmon-Brace in February.

Blackmon-Brace said Hazelwood’s letter affirmed that she’s done nothing wrong. She said she doesn’t appear before a judge during hearings, but just signs clients out of jail.

Blackmon-Brace’s concern

Blackmon-Brace said she wishes Sowell would have talked to her before contacting the Ethics Commission in November. She said she didn’t know until January that another opinion was being sought about her.

Sowell said she would not comment on her reason for waiting until January to notify Blackmon-Brace.

“It is not a conflict of interest because bond is already set when I come,” Blackmon-Brace said.

Blackmon-Brace also said she believes she’s being singled out, because Councilman John Howard works as an agent for KMG Insurance, which offers services to city employees.

In response to that, Sowell referenced Hazelwood’s 2006 opinion, which said Howard’s position didn’t pose any problems.

Blackmon-Brace still believes it’s personal.

“She has it in for me,”  Blackmon-Brace said. “For what reason, I don’t know.”

Sowell said her writing Hazelwood was not to target Blackmon-Brace.

“That’s no longer an issue between the city and her,” she said. “I have no concern now.”

Contact reporter Jesef Williams at jwilliams@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1152