State legislature passes DeKalb reform bills

April 8, 2014. Photo of the Georgia State Capitol taken from in front of the Sloppy Floyd Building April 8, 2014.

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April 8, 2014. Photo of the Georgia State Capitol taken from in front of the Sloppy Floyd Building April 8, 2014.

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It’s crunch time in Georgia’s General Assembly, with only six working days left in the legislative session. To see where particular bills and resolutions stand, check out The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Legislative Navigator at

The Georgia General Assembly approved sweeping overhauls of DeKalb County’s government Tuesday by creating a financial watchdog position, ending political appointments to the county Board of Ethics and tightening purchasing rules.

The three bills won final approval by the state Senate on votes of 48-1, and they now go to Gov. Nathan Deal.

The legislation is an attempt to bring more accountability and transparency to a county government where several public officials have been accused of criminal wrongdoing. Just last week, ex-Commissioner Elaine Boyer was sentenced to 14 months in prison for defrauding taxpayers of more than $100,000. And suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis faces a June 1 retrial on charges that he extorted campaign contributions from county contractors.

“Now we can curtail some of this corruption, especially with those who think they’re above justice of the law and abuse tax dollars,” said Brenda Pace, a member of a citizen group called Blueprint DeKalb, which pushed for the changes in DeKalb’s governance. “I think a lot of our political figures in DeKalb County think they’re above the law. They think they can get away with anything.”

One of the measures, House Bill 599, calls for the creation of an internal auditor responsible for finding fraud and improving government efficiency. The auditor position has been debated by the DeKalb Commission for years, but now will be required under state law.

The auditor, who will be independent from the county commission and CEO, will investigate government operations, issue reports and make recommendations for changes.

“As anybody from the business or nonprofit world knows, independent auditors are the coin of the realm. You need to have it,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who sponsored the legislation. “They will help us avoid problems, and they will help identify anything in the event there might be misuse of funds.”

The ethics legislation, House Bill 597, requires that Board of Ethics members be appointed by community groups instead of by commissioners and the CEO. The Board of Ethics would be chosen by the DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb legislative delegation, the judge of the DeKalb Probate Court, Leadership DeKalb, DeKalb colleges and universities, and the chief judge of DeKalb Superior Court.

The bill also takes away the board’s power to remove elected officials from office, an ability that has never been used. If Deal signs the ethics legislation, voters would decide whether to approve it during a November election. A new board would take office Jan. 1. Earlier this month, Board of Ethics member Robert Blackman resigned after telling a county employee to “come outside” to settle their differences.

“It takes a lot of the politics out of the equation, and it’s a great step forward,” said John Ernst, the chairman of the DeKalb Board of Ethics.

The purchasing policy legislation, House Bill 598, requires sealed bids for all purchases exceeding $50,000 and commission approval for all purchases exceeding $100,000.

These initiatives arose from months of efforts by Blueprint DeKalb and the DeKalb Operations Task Force, a group of lawmakers and community leaders appointed by Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May.

“This is going to make our county better,” May said. “It’s going to help us with openness, transparency and allow us to operate with greater integrity.”

May hired former Georgia Attorney Mike Bowers last week to investigate corruption in DeKalb in hopes of eliminating conflicts of interest and inappropriate dealings among the county’s more than 6,000 government employees.

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