UPDATE: After referendum fails, DeKalb lawmakers to reconsider ethics legislation

Sarah Jones votes with her children at The Gathering at the Church at Decatur Heights polling place  on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.  JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Sarah Jones votes with her children at The Gathering at the Church at Decatur Heights polling place on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

It's back to the drawing board for state senators and representatives from DeKalb after voters rejected a slate of revisions to the county's ethics laws Tuesday, siding with critics who said the changes would have weakened ethics oversight

With about 61% of voters turning down a referendum on the ballot, DeKalb’s Board of Ethics will effectively remain dormant for at least several more months. State lawmakers representing DeKalb are expected to take up the issue again during the 2020 legislative session.

Critics say that is a better outcome than if voters had approved the changes, which included removing the position of ethics officer and replacing it with a person who was more clerical in nature. The changes also would have required county employees to turn to the human resources department first if they had an ethics complaint.

“I don’t think passing a flawed bill is the way to get the ethics board back in action,” said Mary Hinkel, the chair of the DeKalb Citizens Advisory Council. “We needed that kind of majority to send a message to the delegation.”

Sen. Emanuel Jones (right) speaks before the DeKalb House delegation earlier this year. (Photo: J.D. Capelouto/jdcapelouto@ajc.com)

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The group issued a press release late Tuesday night praising voters for rejecting a proposal that the organization said would gut the ethics board. The group spent the past three months campaigning against the changes.

A 2018 Georgia Supreme Court ruling pushes state lawmakers to change the law to ensure only elected officials appoint members to the ethics board. Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, introduced a bill during the 2019 session that did just that. But his Senate Bill 7 went through a drastic revision that ultimately divided DeKalb delegation members.

Some agreed with the changes, and others said they didn’t like everything they read but felt it was best to compromise so the ethics board can get back to work. But there was also a faction of DeKalb legislators who were vehemently opposed to the final version of Senate Bill 7 and encouraged constituents to reject it. They said it would roll back ethics reforms voters passed overwhelmingly in 2015.

“I think it is clear that DeKalb voters were paying attention and are rightfully protective of the very good ethics law that they passed in 2015,” said state Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, one of the lawmakers who urged residents to vote “no” on the referendum.

Wilson said he hopes the DeKalb legislative delegation can craft a new ethics bill early in the 2020 session, in time for a referendum in the spring. This time, Wilson said, lawmakers should only change the appointment process to the ethics board.

“I’m ready. I’ve been on the phone today with members of the delegation talking about what comes next,” he said.

Jones, who pushed for the referendum to pass, said he has “every intention” of sponsoring new legislation in the 2020 session. But he said it’s too early to say what it might look like.

“My goal is to draft legislation that all of the county can support,” he said. He mentioned that countywide turnout was just 11%. Because it was a municipal election year, the ethics referendum was the only thing on the ballot for voters in unincorporated areas.

Jones, the head of the DeKalb Senate delegation, said he spoke with House delegation Chair Rep. Karla Drenner on Wednesday morning. He said they will create a task force to address the ethics issue for the 2020 session.

State Sen. Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, supported the measure but said Wednesday morning he was not surprised it was rejected, due to the immense criticism the measure faced.

“If we had passed what we had … we would have had something in place,” Henson said. Instead, he said, the ethics board is “not functioning as we would like. It’s basically dormant, and that was the problem with not approving the measure we had.”

If the referendum had passed, it would have essentially put the current ethics officer, Stacey Kalberman, out of a job.

“The public spoke,” Kalberman said Wednesday, “and they were not happy with the changes that were made to the ethics bill. It was pretty evident.”

Stacey Kalberman at the DeKalb County Board of Ethics meeting in August 2017.  (photo credit: Rebecca Breyer)

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She is still able to investigate possible ethics violations, train and advise employees, but the ethics board is unable to hold meetings or take any formal actions.

“DeKalb needs a strong ethics board,” county CEO Michael Thurmond said in a statement Wednesday. “This current state of affairs is unacceptable.”

Thurmond previously said the legislation was “imperfect,” but said he supported the referendum.

Jones cancelled town hall meetings in October after the first two of four he scheduled were packed with opponents of the ethics revisions. Some of his colleagues held the final two meetings without him.

County commissioner Nancy Jester was among at least two DeKalb County commissioners who encouraged voters to give the ethics referendum a thumbs down.

“I am grateful to the voters for their thoughtful rejection of this bad ethics referendum,” she said Tuesday night. “They saw through the attempt to gut the strong ethics reforms they supported in 2015.”

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