DeKalb County has a new ethics board. Now the work begins.

The newly reconstituted DeKalb County ethics board held its first (virtual) meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. SCREENSHOT

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The newly reconstituted DeKalb County ethics board held its first (virtual) meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. SCREENSHOT

After nearly three years of legal limbo and legislative wrangling, DeKalb County again has a functional ethics board.

And its plate is already plenty full.

When the new ethics board meets next week, the panel of seven tasked with considering complaints of wrongdoing against county officials and employees will begin sifting through a backlog of cases that started piling up even before a 2018 court ruling hamstrung its previous iteration.

There are 28 cases pending before the board, which has the power to issue censures, reprimands and fines.

And Jonathan Crane, a professor at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, said the renewed level of oversight will be vital to restoring and maintaining the public’s trust in their government.

“If there isn’t a structure like an independent ethics board, through which people in the government itself or people in the community can express concerns, then government functions with near impunity,” he said.

Several of the backlogged cases will likely be dismissed out of the gate. Complaints have been filed against folks like teachers and judges, who aren’t among the roughly 5,000 DeKalb employees over which the ethics board has jurisdiction.

But other high-profile cases from the past may finally move forward.

A 2014 complaint against former chief procurement officer Kelvin Walton — the unindicted co-conspirator in the corruption case against ex-CEO Burrell Ellis — is on the list of pending cases. So is a complaint against Marcus Kellum, a former county beautification director accused of doing consulting work on the side and over-billing DeKalb taxpayers for travel expenses.

A 2018 ethics complaint in which a staffer accused former county commissioner Gregory Adams of sexual harassment may be taken up as well. A related lawsuit against Adams was voluntarily dismissed by plaintiff Ashlee Wright in late 2019.

There are also multiple ethics cases still pending against former county commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, including one from 2014 accusing her of misusing a county purchasing card and another from 2016 accusing her of improperly accepting “in-kind memberships” to a local YMCA.”

Ethics officer Stacey Kalberman said it will be up to the board to decide how to proceed with those cases. That’s true for all complaints, but Barnes Sutton is currently scheduled to stand trial on federal bribery and extortion charges in early May.

It was Barnes Sutton and attorney Dwight Thomas who filed the lawsuit that neutered DeKalb’s ethics board for so long.

The litigation they initiated in 2017 landed a year later in the Georgia Supreme Court, where justices agreed that allowing private groups like the local bar association and chamber of commerce to appoint ethics board members was unconstitutional.

State lawmakers’ subsequent attempt to restructure the board and make other controversial changes to the ethics office was shot down in a 2019 referendum.

Legislators gave it another shot in 2020 and, despite pandemic-related interruptions, were able to produce changes that proved palatable to voters. The referendum held last November passed overwhelmingly.

The new board — with all seven members appointed either by state representatives, state senators or the county tax commissioner — was assembled in the following months.

The group held its inaugural meeting in February, but that gathering was largely introductory. Next week’s meeting is the first in which actual cases will be discussed.

Those discussions may include more recent complaints filed against sitting county officials.

One anonymous complainant accuses Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson of breaching ethics rules when the commissioner mentioned her own eyewear boutique in a 2019 newsletter emailed to constituents. Cochran-Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that she trusted the ethics board’s review would be “appropriate and fair based upon the issue that has been raised and my actions and intent.”

In another complaint, a local artist accuses Commissioner Jeff Rader of allowing his previous tenure as president of the Druid Hills Civic Association to influence his decision not to sponsor a proposal to have the artist’s property federally designated as “Druid Hill,” singular.

Rader called the claims “farfetched,” “unsubstantiated” and “dubious on their face.”

Ed Williams, the leader of a local group called Concerned Citizens for Effective Government, has his own pending complaint against several county commissioners. It’s tied to the commission’s 2018 vote to raise their own salaries.

While the ethics board was dormant, Williams filed a similar lawsuit in DeKalb County Superior Court. The case has since gone all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court and back, and is still being litigated.

Williams, who is not an attorney but has represented himself in the lawsuit, said his years-long journey in court proves ethics boards have value. Everyday residents shouldn’t have to hire an attorney — or try to be one themselves — to hold officials accountable, he said.

“One of the reasons why we have an ethics board,” Williams said, “is for local residents to have a body that they can go to to seek justice, without having to go through all of that.”

The next meeting of the DeKalb County ethics board is scheduled for March 18 at 6 p.m. It will be held virtually, aired on Comcast Channel 23 and streamed online.

In the inaugural meeting last month, ethics board chairman Lonnie Edwards said the group would act with fairness, justice and integrity.

“I look forward to working with this group of dedicated citizens to continue the improvement of a county that we can all be proud of,” he said.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced current Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams. The AJC regrets the error.


TIMELINE: RECENT HISTORY OF THE DEKALB COUNTY BOARD OF ETHICS

NOV. 2015: DeKalb voters approve a referendum that takes the power to appoint ethics board members away from the county CEO and commissioners and gives it to several private organizations.

JAN. 2017: Former county commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton files a lawsuit arguing that giving appointment powers to private organizations is unconstitutional. Ethics board operations are put on pause.

AUG. 2018: The Georgia Supreme Court rules in favor of Barnes Sutton. With the legitimacy of more than half of its members in question, the ethics board remains unable to meet.

NOV. 2019: DeKalb voters shoot down a controversial referendum to reconfigure the ethics board and the larger ethics office. Critics said the changes proposed would have actually hindered oversight.

NOV. 2020: DeKalb voters overwhelmingly approve a new referendum that gives ethics board appointment powers to the county’s state House and Senate delegations, as well as its tax commissioner.

JAN. 2021: Appointments to the new ethics board are finalized.

FEB. 2021: The new ethics board holds its first meeting.