Attorney general says DeKalb pay raise vote was illegal

Georgia’s attorney general said the DeKalb Board of Commissioners’ vote to give themselves 60-percent raises violated the state’s open meeting law, but it’s too late to undo it.

Because the 90-day window to contest the vote itself has passed, the pay raises cannot be reversed by the courts, Attorney General Christopher Carr wrote. They are scheduled to go into effect in January.

Carr says the county prosecutor could still pursue criminal or civil action against anyone who participated or conducted the Feb. 27 meeting where the vote took place. Either way, the maximum penalty would be $1,000 per violation.

“The board’s failure to include their salary increase on the meeting agenda in advance of the meeting not only frustrated the purpose of the Open Meetings Act, it violated the Act’s requirement that ‘all matters expected to come before [the] agency’ should be included in the agenda,” Carr said in his letter.

Later, he wrote that the Board of Commissioners had fallen short on its duty to follow the law “designed to ensure that the public’s trust in its elected officials is not misplaced as they carry out the people’s business.

The citizens of DeKalb County deserve better,” he said.

Faye Coffield, one of two residents whose complaints led to the attorney general’s investigation, said Wednesday that she felt vindicated by the letter.

“This should be a lesson to citizens that you can challenge your government and you can win,” she said.

Most members of the Board of Commissioners declined to answer questions about the attorney general's statements, saying they were waiting on acting County Attorney Viviane Ernstes to provide guidance. Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson also deferred to Ernstes, but not before questioning whether Carr's letter had something to do with his campaign in the current race for attorney general.

“I think that is an opinion just like it’s written; an opinion written in a political year by a political candidate,” Johnson said.

There was no discussion or explanation before commissioners voted 6-1 to give themselves pay raises during their regularly scheduled meeting.

Before that happened, members had said they were hopeful the General Assembly would give them raises so they wouldn’t have to face the uncomfortable task of voting for their own salary increases. However, the Board of Commissioners also purchased legal ads saying they could vote on their own raises during the February meeting.

The pay raise issue was not on the agenda the day of the vote.

Coffield spoke during public comment and criticized members for asking for a hefty pay hike even as they struggled to recruit and retain police officer, firefighters and E-911 workers. But she left before the vote because the agenda did not indicate one would happen.

“I think by the time they voted a lot of people had actually left because they weren’t expecting anything,” Coffield said. “And that’s what they wanted people to do.”

She and Ed Williams later filed a complaint with the DeKalb Board of Ethics, which also can impose fines if it determines county policies were violated. That investigation is pending. Williams had also asked the attorney general to look into what happened.

Carr’s office sent a letter to Ernstes asking her to explain the board’s actions; he said Wednesday that response did not pass muster. Ernstes had written that the Board of Commissioners decided not to put the pay raise issue on the agenda because they thought constituents would be confused if the General Assembly acted prior to the board meeting.

Ernstes did not respond to a request for comment from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The pay raise item should have been included anyway, Carr said, and removed if legislators had acted.

Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican whose district includes north DeKalb, was outraged about the vote. He tried to delay the raises until after members' current terms ended, creating a staggered implementation. When that didn't happen, he made a last-ditch effort on the final night of the session to roll back the pay hike to 10 percent. The Senate agreed, but the House did not.

Millar said he does not believe commissioners knowingly broke the law, but he doesn’t like that they will benefit from what the attorney general has determined is a violation. He said he will keep trying to negate the vote.

“If the delegation goes along with it, I would have no problem in discussing reducing their compensation if I am re-elected,” he said.

Read the attorney general's letter

Exclusive coverage

The AJC was the first news organization to report on the surprise vote in February that DeKalb commissioners took to give themselves a 60-percent pay hike. Members said they deserved the increase because of the hours they dedicate to the job and years since their last raise.

The AJC later reviewed commissioners’ calendars and found they do a poor job of documenting their activities, making it difficult to track the time put in on behalf of the county.

The paper was the first news organization to report the attorney general’s letter outlining why he believes the pay raise vote violated the open meeting law.