DeKalb voters approve county’s latest ethics referendum

DeKalb County residents vote early at the future Stonecrest City Hall in Stonecrest, Georgia, on Saturday, October 24, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
DeKalb County residents vote early at the future Stonecrest City Hall in Stonecrest, Georgia, on Saturday, October 24, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

A new ethics board will now be assembled by the end of the year

DeKalb County will have a new, functional ethics board by the end of the year.

There were still tens of thousands of absentee ballots to be counted in DeKalb on Wednesday. But voters had overwhelmingly supported the latest proposal to reshape ethics oversight in the county.

Among other things, the measure fixes the problematic appointment process that has hamstrung the local ethics board — which investigates complaints against county employees and elected officials — for more than two years.

This week’s results were a stark contrast to 2019, when voters shot down another, much more controversial ethics referendum.

State Rep. Viola Davis, who steered the effort to craft new legislation and get this year’s referendum on the ballot, called the voters' approval a blessing.

“The whistleblowers' sacrifices were not in vain," Davis said.

The new legislation was put on Tuesday’s ballots after being adopted in June by DeKalb’s delegation to the General Assembly. It changes the appointment process for county ethics board members, an issue that has effectively neutered the panel since Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that giving appointment powers to non-elected entities was unconstitutional.

Under the new rules, DeKalb’s delegations to the state House and state Senate will each have three appointments. The DeKalb tax commissioner will appoint the seventh member.

DeKalb’s Clerk of Superior Court will also appoint two alternate ethics board members, who would serve in the case of vacancies or conflicts of interest.

By law, the new board will be assembled and up and running by the start of 2021.

Representatives from DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council, which supported passage of this year’s referendum, said they were pleased with the results. In an emailed statement, chair Mary Hinkel encouraged any individuals interested in serving on the ethics board to come forward and volunteer their services.

The legislative delegations and other appointing authorities are expected to issue a joint call for applicants soon.

“In our view, these initial appointments — and the process for making them — signal an important new beginning for the Board of Ethics,” Hinkel said.

The new legislation also makes other changes.

The most divisive changes included in last year′s failed referendum included effectively eliminating the county’s ethics officer position and requiring DeKalb employees to turn to the county’s human resources department first before filing ethics complaints. Critics suggested both items were attempts to take the teeth out of ethics enforcement.

Neither are included in this year’s legislation.

A newly created “ethics administrator” position, however, offers some of the checks and balances sought by those who suggested the existing ethics officer had too much power to determine which complaints are investigated.

The administrator will be responsible for collecting and documenting all complaints before passing them along to the ethics board. The board would then decide if complaints merit a full-fledged investigation and, if so, hand them over to the ethics officer.

The new legislation also prohibits employees of DeKalb County’s purchasing and contracting department from accepting “any gift of value from anyone who has had or may reasonably be anticipated to have any business with or before such department.”

Bribery, corruption and other scandals have marred DeKalb’s purchasing and contracting process for years.

“The DeKalb voters have spoken," CEO Michael Thurmond said. “We now have a process that will allow our county to establish an ethics board that comports with our state constitution.”

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