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Georgia legislators approve overhaul of DeKalb County’s ethics code

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, is the primary sponsor of the DeKalb ethics bill. He is photographed here on the 28th day of the 2019 General Assembly.   Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, is the primary sponsor of the DeKalb ethics bill. He is photographed here on the 28th day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Georgia Senate has signed off on a sweeping overhaul DeKalb County’s ethics code, including a remake of its ethics board. Senate Bill 7 now awaits Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.

If that happens, DeKalb voters will be asked to sign off on the changes in a November referendum.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of DeKalb ethics

5 things to know about... the DeKalb Board of Ethics 1. After years of allegations of government corruption, DeKalb voters in 2015 approved sweeping changes including allowing four outside groups to appoint members to the DeKalb Board of Ethics. Those groups are: DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Leadership DeKalb and a consortium of six colleges and universities based in DeKalb. 2. In 2017, Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson ruled that four of seven members of the DeKalb Board of Eth

Today's 53-1 vote came on the final day of the 2019 legislative session. The lone dissenting vote came from Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta, whose district includes part of DeKalb.

When the bill was first introduced at the beginning of the session, it only revised how the ethics board’s seven members are appointed. That was essential to getting the board back in operation after an unfavorable Georgia Supreme Court ruling.

Under ethics changes voters approved in 2015, outside groups like the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and local universities had nominating powers. But state law requires ethics board members to be appointed by elected officials. The bill now allows the DeKalb House and Senate delegations to appoint two members each. The chief Superior Court judge, probate judge and the county commission will each appoint on member.

After some DeKalb House members suggested the legislation needed cover more ground, primary sponsor Sen. Emanuel Jones introduced substitute language in the session's final days that did just that.

Among the changes:

  • The ethics board is no longer required to hire an ethics officer to help facilitate complaints and investigations -- instead an ethics administrator role was created that is more clerical in nature;
  • County employees must exhaust all remedies through DeKalb's human resources department before filing a complaint to the ethics board;
  • Former county employees and former elected officials can no longer be the subject of an investigation;
  • The length of terms for ethics board members is reduced from three years to two -- members can continue to serve two consecutive terms, meaning four years instead of six.

The House signed off on Jones' substitute language on Thursday as part of a slate of local legislation. Several members of DeKalb's delegation voted "no," but the tally was still 157-13.

That vote sent the bill back to the Senate to concur with the changes, which happened today.