DeKalb commissioners’ pay raise vote leads to Attorney General inquiry

Members of the DeKalb Board of Commissioners stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before the start of a meeting on March 13. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Members of the DeKalb Board of Commissioners stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before the start of a meeting on March 13. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The DeKalb Board of Commissioners’ attorney said the surprise vote on a 60-percent pay raise did not violate state open meeting laws, as one citizen has alleged.

Interim County Attorney Viviane Ernstes, in a letter responding to questions from the Attorney General's Office, said the salary increase was added to the Feb. 27 agenda because the DeKalb Legislative Delegation didn't come to agreement on a pay raise bill.

VIDEO: Previous coverage on this issue

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If approved, those raises will go into effect in January of 2019.

“In short, the salary item was added the day of the BOC meeting and not previously listed on the agenda because, up to the day before the vote, the General Assembly was considering legislation to increase salaries and County elected officials wanted to provide as much time as possible for the General Assembly to act,” Ernstes wrote in her May 24 letter.

She said the commissioners needed to approve raises before to March 5, the first date of qualifying for local offices. If the increases were not finalized by that date, commissioners would have had to wait another year.

Ernstes said the legal notices were published in three consecutive editions of the weekly papers. However, the timing of those legal ads is part of the complaint from Ed Williams, a community activist who recently lost a bid to unseat an incumbent commissioner.

Williams says the third and final legal ad ran in the DeKalb Champion newspaper during the week of Feb. 22 through 28. That means no vote should have happened before March 1, he said.

“It has to be three weeks of advertisement, and they did it two days before that 3-week period ended,” Williams said.

The salary increase was added to the agenda mid-meeting and with no explanation. Commissioners approved it without any discussion or debate.

Afterward, Williams filed complaints with the DeKalb Board of Ethics and the Attorney General’s office, which is now looking into whether open meeting laws were violated. Williams is also arguing that the salary increase should have been on the agenda published prior to the meeting because the legal ad said a vote would happen on Feb. 27.

Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo wrote a letter to Ernstes asking for a response to Williams’ complaint as part of a mediation program to resolve disputes between residents and local governments. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General said that Ernstes’ response will be reviewed and additional fact-finding could take place in hopes of resolving Williams’ issues.

In her letter to Ernstes, Colangelo wrote that Georgia law allows government entities to take a vote on items that aren’t on the agenda when an issue “becomes necessary to address during the course of a meeting.” She said she needed to learn more about how DeKalb commissioners approved the salary increase.

“Of course, I am not aware of all of the circumstances surrounding the complaint, and I am not assuming the county violated the law,” she wrote.