Competing proposals could derail DeKalb ethics board legislation

In order for DeKalb’s ethics board to get back to work, the General Assembly needs to approve a bill that fixes constitutional issues regarding how board members are appointed. There are rival proposals on the table.

One was written by Vernon Jones, a state representative who says the bill needs more provisions to rein in the ethics board’s powers. Another is by the initial senate sponsor, Emanuel Jones, who says the ethics board bill should preserve its independence.

DeKalb House delegation members are expected to decide Monday which version to send to the House floor.

Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, said that if Vernon Jones’ proposal is approved, he will block it in the Senate.

“I’m going to reject it over here because he is basically gutting the ethics committee,” Emanuel Jones said.

Vernon Jones, who has been critical of the ethics board and ethics officer Stacey Kalberman, sees it differently. He said without his suggested changes, Senate Bill 7 is a "recipe for disaster" that will lead to additional lawsuits like the one that reached all the way to the Supreme Court and caused the board's current dormancy.

“The House version is more comprehensive with an emphasis on transparency, due process, and will eliminate future constitutional challenges,” Jones, D-Lithonia, said.

For a bill to become law, identical versions must be approved in the House and Senate. Because Senate Bill 7 is local legislation that only affects DeKalb, the decision-making rests mainly with the members of the county’s legislative delegation.

When the bill started in the Senate, it was a short proposal that focused solely on how ethics board members are appointed.

Things got more complicated when the Senate approved the bill and sent it over the House. Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, insisted on adding provisions that he said were needed to rein in an ethics board and ethics officer he feels have exerted undue power.

The senator and representative initially collaborated in hopes of reaching an agreement on how to proceed. For example, both now want to eliminate the ethics officer position and create an ethics administrator role that is more clerical in nature.

But Vernon Jones wanted to go further and submitted his own draft. It gives the DeKalb House delegation the power to appoint four members of the ethics board and the Senate delegation three members. The Senate version gives each delegation the power to appoint two members and the county commission, county probate judge and chief Superior Court judge would each select one member.

Vernon Jones’ version of the bill also would prohibit anonymous complaints to the ethics board. And complaints filed would be investigated by an administrative law judge appointed by the chief judge of DeKalb’s superior court.

Under Emanuel Jones’ plan, the ethics board would have the power to hire an attorney to investigate cases.

If the House and Senate delegations reach an agreement soon on which version to support, there is still time left for a bill to be passed and signed into law. Voters would then have to ratify the changes in a countywide referendum in November.