Disagreement between House, Senate could derail DeKalb ethics fix

The DeKalb County Board of Ethics. AJC file photo.

The DeKalb County Board of Ethics. AJC file photo.

A bill to restart the DeKalb County Board of Ethics is being threatened by disagreement among state lawmakers about how much power the body should have to hold elected officials and county employees responsible when they break the rules.

At the height of DeKalb's scandals in local government, citizens approved a plan in 2015 to revamp the ethics board by offering civic groups more say on its makeup. A lawsuit and later Georgia Supreme Court ruling sidelined the board, and without a new policy in place the board will remain dormant.

The Supreme Court ruled in August that members appointed by outside groups were serving unconstitutionally. Senate Bill 7 in its current form addresses the membership issue; it was approved last week but erroneously excluded language requiring a voter referendum to ratify changes.

Now, a key House member who has been accused by state and local officials of trying to dilute the board's powers says the Senate has taken the wrong approach. Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, said there should be limitations on the ethics board's investigating powers and more oversight of the county's ethics officer.

“Senate Bill 7 is an old band-aid,” Jones said Monday. “In order to be transparent on the highest level of ethical standards, this entire board has to be reconstituted to prevent future constitutional challenges.”

If the House and Senate cannot agree on a compromise before the session ends April 2, the bill will stall indefinitely. And without a new law on the books, the ethics board will remain sidelined and potentially unable to follow up on complaints for another year.

Sen. Emanuel Jones, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the Senate will need to vote again, since the bill as written needs to include a referendum. But the Democrat from Decatur does not think other changes are warranted.

The senator said he is open to suggestions from a subcommittee of DeKalb House members that is currently reviewing the proposal. But he doesn’t think it is the General Assembly’s role to tell the Ethics Board how to operate.

“Our job is to appoint members to the board to give them some direction and then let them go about their work,” said Emanuel Jones, who is not related Rep. Vernon Jones.

Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Decatur, co-chairs the House subcommittee, with Rep. Jones.

Two years ago, the House and Senate failed to reach an agreement on Ethics Board legislation. At the time, a legal challenge filed by former Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton was pending. But without a final ruling, the board continued to operate as normal.

Last summer, the state’s highest court upheld a lower court ruling and confirmed that it is unconstitutional for outside groups to appoint ethics board members. The board’s members agreed not to meet until fixes are made, either at the state or local level.

This raises the stakes for the current House and Senate negotiations.

As it is now, the Senate bill allows the DeKalb House and Senate delegations to appoint two members each to the board. The county commission will select one member, and the probate and chief Superior Court judge also have an appointment.

Vernon Jones has been a critic of the ethics board and the county's ethics officer Stacey Kalberman, who opposed the changes he proposed in 2017. He later filed an ethics complaint against Kalberman and complained when an outside hearing officer hired by the board ruled that she had not violated any policies.

He said the new legislation should create a system where the courts, state and local governments hold more power over the board and the ethics officer.

“The current ethics board has been a non-transparent shadow government that has wasted thousands of dollars,” Vernon Jones said.

Emanuel Jones said he believes Senate Bill 7 should remain narrowly focused on addressing the one issue that has kept it dormant.

“The big reason the law was tossed out is because the Supreme Court said non-elected bodies cannot appoint members to that committee,” he said. “My bill solves that.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this report.