The DeKalb County Board of Ethics during its May 15 meeting. From left: Board members Edwinett Fay Perkins-Murphy, Clara Black-Delay, Susan Neugent and John Ernst; Gene Chapman, the board’s attorney; and Jennifer Johnson, the board’s administrator. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

DeKalb ethics overhaul on Tuesday’s ballot

In DeKalb’s only countywide referendum, voters will decide Tuesday if its ethics board should undergo a substantial overhaul.

The vaguely worded question asks, “Shall the Act be approved which revises the Board of Ethics for DeKalb County?”

If a majority votes yes, DeKalb’s CEO and county commission would lose their current ability to appoint the panel responsible for overseeing their behavior. Instead, a new DeKalb Board of Ethics would be chosen by various community organizations.

Approval of the measure also would take away the ethics board’s power to remove or suspend elected officials from office, which it has never done. But the board would gain the authority to fine ethics violators up to $1,000 and refer their cases for prosecution with the possibility of six months imprisonment upon conviction.

“Even if there’s nothing else to vote for, this is something of huge importance,” said former Board of Ethics member Patricia Killingsworth, who advocated for the overhaul. “You need to have stages of punishment that are appropriate, and our code didn’t have it. It was either a slap on the wrist, or you’re out of office.”

In addition, the board would gain a full-time ethics officer responsible for training government employees about appropriate conduct, calling attention to ethics violations, accepting complaints and monitoring an ethics hotline. The board’s jurisdiction would expand beyond elected officials so that it would cover all government employees, appointed officials and contractors.

Board of Ethics Chairwoman Clara Black DeLay opposes the measure, in part because it permits anonymous complaints to be made to the ethics officer, which could result in frivolous and politically motivated allegations. She also said allowing community groups — the DeKalb Bar Association, DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Leadership DeKalb and others — to pick board members would empower their special interests.

“It seems like it’s more for a political purpose by putting the people we want on the board that will get the results we seek,” she said. “If there’s a witch hunt afoot, they’ll have the right people in place to get the witch.”

But lawmakers who voted for House Bill 597, which authorizes Tuesday’s referendum, said DeKalb’s government has proven it needs stronger ethical controls.

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and former DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer are serving prison sentences; spending of taxpayer money has been frequently questioned; and investigators Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde recently said they found “a pattern of corrosive and widespread misconduct” in county government.

Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said she hopes that ethics training and the threat of fines will discourage bad behavior.

“They’ll know if they don’t do the right thing, they’ve got to pay,” said Butler, who sponsored the Senate version of the reform bill. “A hit in the pocket hurts a lot.”

Over the last year, the DeKalb Board of Ethics has reviewed dozens of complaints.

Its most substantial actions were reprimands of Commissioner Stan Watson for a conflict of interest when he voted twice to give his employer a county contract, and of Boyer for using her county charge card for personal gain.

Legislators say they eliminated the board’s power to remove officials from office because they believe that decision belongs to voters.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said she hopes voters back the board’s restructuring.

“Organizations independent of the county government will appoint the members, as opposed to the fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation we have now,” she said.

The new board would take office Jan. 1 if voters approve of the change Tuesday.

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