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DeKalb lawmakers exchange caustic emails over ethics board legislation

State Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, exchanged tense emails that highlighted disagreement over proposals to reform DeKalb County’s ethics board. AJC file photos.
State Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, exchanged tense emails that highlighted disagreement over proposals to reform DeKalb County’s ethics board. AJC file photos.

Members of DeKalb County’s legislative delegation traded biting emails late last week, highlighting deep divisions among lawmakers on how to move forward with a relaunch of the county’s ethics board.

The email chain was started by Rep. Vernon Jones after Friday's delegation meeting where Sen. Emanuel Jones discussed his proposed revisions to Senate Bill 7.

Vernon Jones, who did not attend the meeting, believed that Emanuel Jones had erroneously led delegation members to believe that this had his support.

“I was told that Sen. Jones said I agreed with his changes,” Jones wrote in an email to delegation members. “Let me be clear, that is categorically and unequivocally a flat lie.”

Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, and Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, are not related, and they have bitterly disagreed on issues in the past. Senate Bill 7, intended to revise how DeKalb ethics commission members are appointed after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year that outside groups cannot do so, is just the latest example.

Emanuel Jones was the primary sponsor of the bill, which passed on the Senate floor with language that only addressed how ethics board members are appointed. When it got to the House, however, Vernon Jones insisted that more be added.

Emanuel Jones eventually agreed. He has created a new draft of the bill that eliminates the ethics officer position, requires the ethics board to outsource investigations to a private attorney, reduces term limits for board members and requires county employees to complain to Human Resources first before filing ethics complaints. The ethics board also would not be allowed to investigate former county employees or elected officials.

Vernon Jones has a rival proposal on the table, and it does even more to roll back the board’s powers. An administrative law judge appointed by the Superior Court would be required to investigate all ethics complaints, and the DeKalb House delegation would appoint the majority of board members.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver replied to Vernon Jones’ email and encouraged members to focus only on changing the appointment process for board members, leaving more substantial changes to the county’s new Charter Review Commission. If that can’t be done, kill the bill all together, she wrote.

She ended with a critique of Vernon Jones.

“With either option, do not give Vernon the floor to accuse any and all of us of bad deeds,” Oliver, D-Decatur, wrote. “Enjoy your weekend, any and all time responding to Vernon is time wasted. His goal is attention.”

Jones replied one final time, accusing Oliver of wanting to kill the bill to protect ethics officer Stacey Kalberman.

“You have no desire for due process when your friends are involved,” he wrote. “You just want to protect their power so Stacey can continue to slip you notes at the delegation meetings.”

Jones later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he does not believe Oliver is interested in making the ethics board more transparent, protecting due process for the accusing or avoiding future legal challenges.

The delegation is scheduled to meet on Wednesday morning to talk about the ethics bill and how to proceed. In addition to the Emanuel Jones’ and Vernon Jones’ proposals, Oliver said she may bring one of their own that closely mirrors the original language approved by the Senate.

Any other changes to the county’s ethics laws should be done later to allow DeKalb residents to weigh in and give lawmakers time to cool off, she said.

“Our discussions internally are not positive; they are too personal based on some long histories,” Oliver said. “And that urges me more to have a public, more rational discussion.”