Ethics oversight in DeKalb County may soon emerge from yet another period of hibernation.
On Tuesday morning, the DeKalb Board of Commissioners voted to confirm the appointment of Elisa Murphy as the county’s next ethics officer. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond must still sign off as well, but the vote — which was 5-0-2, with commissioners Jeff Rader and Larry Johnson abstaining — means the local ethics board’s five-month stretch without a leader could soon end.
That, in turn, means the panel could soon resume addressing complaints filed against county employees and officials.
Stacey Kalberman was DeKalb’s original ethics officer, weathering a period that included more than three years of an ethics board neutered by legal and legislative challenges. The board was restored following a 2020 public referendum and, for about a year, functioned largely as intended.
But this February, Kalberman left the county for another job. Her departure came amid allegations of racial bias brought forth by the county’s deputy ethics officer. Kalberman has both denied those claims and maintained that their existence was unrelated to her resignation.
Her six-year term was set to expire soon and, by law, she would not have been eligible for reappointment.
The ethics board’s attempts to find a replacement actually moved fairly quickly at first. By early May, they had hired a search firm, sifted through applications and named Murphy, a judge and educator from Ohio, as the sole finalist for the position.
On May 12, the ethics board voted unanimously to hire Murphy.
Under the current ethics law, however, a sign-off from both the county commission and Thurmond was still needed.
Some commissioners with pending ethics complaints against them, including Rader, balked at voting on Murphy’s appointment and cited potential conflicts of interest. Those questions stalled any commission movement for months, keeping the ethics office “basically non-functional, a ship without a captain,” as ethics board chair Alex Joseph recently put it.
But last Thursday, a three-member committee of the county commission finally interviewed Murphy via Zoom. They seemed impressed.
The ethics board held its own meeting a few hours later and voted to provide an “informal” legal opinion regarding the commission’s bigger picture concerns. Essentially, that opinion said that commissioners had nothing to fear: that the ethics board is who decides guilt or innocence in ethics cases, and that the law as written doesn’t see the commission’s approval of an ethics officer as a conflict.
If it did, Joseph said, “basically the entire ethics board falls apart.”
“If they choose not to vote on an ethics officer they are depriving us of the ability to function,” she said.
Tuesday’s commission vote on Murphy’s appointment was taken with little discussion. It was not immediately clear if or when Thurmond would ratify the hire.
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