Legislative efforts to change DeKalb ethics board begin anew

Rep. Matthew Wilson

Legislative movement over the restructuring of DeKalb County’s ethics board has begun once again.

State Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, has drafted a bill in response to the Georgia Supreme Court's 2018 ruling that the current appointment process for the county Board of Ethics is unconstitutional.

In November, DeKalb voters rejected a slate of revisions to the ethics board. Those revisions would have changed the appointment process and other board operations. Those proposals, which state legislators representing DeKalb discussed earlier this year, were opposed by government watchdog groups who claimed the revisions weaken ethics oversight in DeKalb.

Wilson’s bill, a copy of which was provided to the AJC, would only change the appointment process of the board, which has essentially sat dormant since the court’s August 2018 court ruling. Judges ruled that members of the seven-member panel could not be appointed by outside, non-governmental groups.

Under Wilson’s bill, the DeKalb state House and Senate delegations would appoint two board members, county judges would appoint three members, and the mayors and city council members of DeKalb’s 12 cities would choose the remaining two members. The bill does not specify how the dozens of city officials would make their collective choices.

Wilson plans to file the bill at the outset of the 2020 session, which begins Jan. 13. He planned to pre-file the bill on Monday, but said he was unable to do so because it qualifies as local legislation.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (right) speaks before the DeKalb House delegation earlier this year about the ethics bill. (Photo: J.D. Capelouto/jdcapelouto@ajc.com)

After the ballot referendum failed in November, lawmakers for DeKalb said they would convene a task force to come up with legislation that would revive the ethics board. Wilson said the delegation could pass his bill to restart the ethics board, and the task force can then discuss other potential changes to the board.

“I think we can obviously have multiple bills,” he said, “and I think that we need to separate fixing the appointment process from any other changes that are being discussed.”

The November ballot referendum, rejected by about 61% of voters, would have removed the position of ethics officer and replaced it with a person who was more clerical in nature. The changes also would have required county employees to turn to the human resources department first if they had an ethics complaint. Groups like the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council said those changes would “gut” the ethics board, and said lawmakers should pass a bill only revising the appointment process.

Mary Hinkel, the chairwoman of the group, said she was “excited” about Wilson’s bill and strategy. She said there will likely be “a lot of negotiations” over which officials make appointments to the board, but said the group is not taking a position on whether the mayors and city council officials are best suited to do so.

Supporters of the referendum said it was more important to restart the ethics board, despite concerns about the proposed changes.

This story has been updated to reflect that Wilson plans to file the bill at the beginning of the 2020 legislative session.

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