Integrity programs created in DeKalb amid accusations

A look at DeKalb County’s mid-year budget

  • The total budget is worth $1.224 billion for 2014, including spending for police, firefighters, hospitals, parks, courts, sewers, libraries and other services.
  • Taxes pay for $555 million of the budget, which grew by 2.5 percent since last year as property values have risen.
  • Property tax rates will remain the same as last year in unincorporated areas of the county.
  • The county's more than 6,000 full-time employees will receive a 3 percent raise, their first pay increase in seven years.
  • More than $91 million will be held in reserve funds.

Facing a torrent of accusations of unethical conduct, the DeKalb County Commission on Tuesday voted to spend more than $1 million on initiatives aimed at keeping government honest.

The board voted 4-2 to approve a budget with funding for a chief integrity officer, an integrity unit in the district attorney’s office and auditor positions to scrutinize public spending. Combined, 12 people would be hired to fill the jobs at a cost of more than $1 million a year.

Efforts by DeKalb commissioners to improve public confidence come as they’re being investigated by multiple agencies for a variety of alleged misdeeds. Ethics complaints are pending against all six commissioners and Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, and the FBI also is conducting an ongoing investigation.

May said the new positions are needed to rebuild trust in government.

“You’ve seen it in the news every day: There’s ethics complaints and accusations of criminal activity going on,” May said. “Our goal is to project confidence in the general public that we are doing business in the light of day.”

But Faye Coffield, a DeKalb resident, told commissioners the chief integrity officer wouldn’t do anything to root out corruption because, as a county employee, the person hired for the job will still be part of a broken system.

“It’s like a fox watching the hen house,” Coffield said after the vote.

The county Board of Ethics will review accusations that several commissioners used government money for personal purchases, including plane fare, speeding tickets, home computer equipment and online shopping. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed questionable spending habits in several articles this year.

In addition, suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis faces trial in September on charges that he shook down county vendors for campaign contributions. And a special grand jury last year found indications of bid rigging, kickbacks and theft surrounding the county’s $1.7 billion water and sewer upgrade project.

In federal court last month, a former construction company CEO testified that two businessmen asked him to give DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson $50,000 or $60,000 in bribes in return for work on the sewer project. A judge threw out criminal counts related to that claim after prosecutors didn’t present evidence a bribe was ever paid, and Watson has denied any involvement in the alleged scheme.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who voted against the budget Tuesday, said she doubted the new programs would improve ethics in the county. She said attempts to add a chief integrity officer and investigator intruded on the Board of Ethics’ independence.

“DeKalb County is in the news for all the wrong reasons,” Gannon said. “We need to get back to the business of governing this county.”

After some debate, the commission appropriated funding for the chief integrity officer but decided not to release the money until the Board of Ethics requests it. The integrity officer could be used to train county employees, field tips about unethical behavior and bring concerns to the attention of the Board of Ethics.

“This increased money and funding for the Ethics Board are steps in the right direction,” said John Ernst, the board’s chairman. “It does not solve all the problems we have instantaneously. It will take diligence and work from the Ethics Board and DeKalb County government to break this crisis of confidence.”

As for three auditor positions, those hired would answer to the commission instead of the CEO so they could have more autonomy when reviewing government operations, said Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.

But she said no one will be hired to fill those jobs until commissioners agree on the auditors’ job descriptions, keeping the program from becoming a reality any time soon. The commission has discussed an internal auditor for three years but done little more.

Still, the commission’s attempts to improve transparency and accountability represent progress, said Aja Marie Pascale, director of DeKalb Citizens for Good Government.

“I think it helps. We want to send a message, far and wide, that citizens don’t tolerate corruption and they want the county to clean up its act,” she said. “People care. People are watching.”