No one in DeKalb County’s government asked questions when commissioners used thousands of dollars of taxpayer money for meals, personal cellphones and speeding tickets.
Fishy contracting practices weren’t stopped until a special grand jury investigated, resulting in extortion and bribery charges against DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.
The agency tasked with enforcing honest government, the DeKalb Board of Ethics, wasn’t even reviewing complaints until earlier this year because it was short-staffed and underfunded.
That lax or nonexistent oversight has led two separate organizations to recommend that stronger measures be put in place to monitor DeKalb officials. And it could happen soon.
Georgia lawmakers may require independent monitoring of ethics and money during next year’s legislative session.
Proposals include creating an internal watchdog department with the authority to hold elected officials accountable, removing Board of Ethics appointments from elected officials and strengthening purchasing rules.
“It’s only because no one was watching … that these problems manifested themselves,” said John Ernst, the chairman of the DeKalb Board of Ethics. “DeKalb County is growing up. Only with hard work by lots of different folks are we going to get through this.”
The recommendations for reform have broad support after they were proposed by both the DeKalb Government Operations Task Force, a group of community leaders and government officials appointed by Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, and Blueprint DeKalb, a citizen-led effort to find structural solutions to the region’s problems.
“Any company has to go through good accounting measures, so why doesn’t our government?” asked Honey Van De Kreke, an active county resident who works in electronics wholesale. “If that takes an independent auditor, that’s just the cost of doing business for the county.”
The auditor would be required to evaluate the efficiency of government operations, review internal controls and investigate government spending, according to the task force’s recommendations approved Dec. 19.
As for the Board of Ethics, it would gain autonomy by having community organizations — rather than commissioners and the county CEO — appoint its members. Those organizations could include the county chamber of commerce, bar association, major universities and civic associations.
Outside nominations of board members would remove the perception that they’re beholden to elected officials, and the change could remove some of the politics from the process of reviewing potential ethical breaches, said Pat Killingsworth, a member of Blueprint DeKalb and a former DeKalb Board of Ethics member.
“It’s important to have appointments of board members made by an independent source as opposed to by commissioners themselves since the commissioners are subject to the jurisdiction of the board,” she said.
Other measures to beef up oversight already have been put in place.
The DeKalb Commission increased the Board of Ethics’ budget from $16,000 to $215,242 last year, and the board plans to hire a full-time executive director responsible for fielding tips about unethical behavior, training government employees and bringing concerns to the board. The board received about 40 ethics complaints this year, and cases are pending against four county commissioners.
The board’s powers also could be changed by state lawmakers.
The Operations Task Force suggested that the Board of Ethics gain the ability to levy fines against government employees but lose the authority to remove them from office. No other ethics board in the state can remove officials from office.
If the Georgia General Assembly enacts the proposals, DeKalb’s Board of Ethics would become more like Atlanta’s. The Atlanta Board of Ethics is independently appointed and works with the Atlanta Ethics Office, whose three full-time employees run a hotline, train government employees and investigate complaints.
“If you’re serious about ethics, it’s important to have people who can focus on it,” said Nina Hickson, Atlanta’s ethics officer. “You want to get to the point where people are thinking about ethical issues ahead of time instead of thinking about them afterward.”
DeKalb needs to take greater responsibility for the job of transparent service to its residents, said Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven. That can be accomplished if the auditing, ethics and purchasing recommendations are made law.
“We’re at a point where the citizens of DeKalb County would strongly prefer to no longer learn about abuse or misappropriation of taxpayer funds solely from the news media,” said Jacobs, a member of the Operations Task Force.