DeKalb County’s independent Board of Ethics survived the Georgia General Assembly, but its future remains in doubt.
The legislation, Senate Bill 273, was meant to address potential problems raised in a lawsuit by former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who argued some of the board’s members are improperly appointed by unelected officials.
If a judge rules against the board, it might not be able to continue hearing cases.
“The Ethics Board — and ethics reform in DeKalb — is at risk,” said DeKalb Board of Ethics Chairman Dan DeWoskin. “Based on what the court does, it seems certain there could be protracted litigation.”
About 92 percent of DeKalb voters approved overhauling the Board of Ethics in November 2015 in an effort to hold elected officials and government employees accountable. Instead of having members appointed by the county commission and CEO, voters gave that power to community leaders, organizations and judges.
The board, which investigates complaints about conflicts of interest and abuse of power, has the authority to issue $1,000 fines and refer cases for misdemeanor prosecution.
Sutton, who is facing ethics allegations that she misspent government money, argues the board’s independence makes it unconstitutional because most of its members are appointed by private organizations, such as the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and local colleges.
The bill originally would have continued to allow nongovernmental groups to nominate members to the DeKalb Board of Ethics, subject to confirmation by state legislators from DeKalb.
After legislators disagreed over that proposal, a new version of the bill emerged from the House on Tuesday.
That revised proposal would have replaced the board’s current members with others appointed by DeKalb’s 23 state representatives and senators.
“We were all in agreement that this was the bill we wanted to take forward,” said Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, the chairman of DeKalb’s state House delegation.
But senators from DeKalb had strong objections.
With legislators choosing its members, the revised bill would have inserted political influence over the Board of Ethics. The legislation also could have stalled cases by requiring the board to turn its preliminary findings over to the county’s solicitor, who would have then launched her own inquiries.
“I’m committed to the Ethics Board remaining a strong, independent organization,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, the bill’s sponsor. “We’ll wait on the judge’s ruling and determine where to go from there.”
If DeKalb Superior Court Asha Jackson upholds the appointment process to the Board of Ethics, it can continue considering cases. But an adverse ruling could prevent the board from holding meetings and investigating allegations of misbehavior.
No matter which way Jackson rules, the case likely will be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
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