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UPDATED: DeKalb Ethics Board’s future is in doubt

State representatives from DeKalb County deadlocked

The ability of the DeKalb Board of Ethics to continue doing business is in jeopardy after state legislators deadlocked Monday over a bill to address a legal challenge brought by former Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.

The House of Representatives DeKalb Policy Committee voted 3-3 on a bill to change how the Board of Ethics’ members are appointed. The tie vote prevents the bill from moving forward.

Sutton’s lawsuit says it’s unconstitutional for board members to be appointed by unelected groups, such as the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and local colleges.

Ethics cases against a current DeKalb commissioner and a former commissioner are raising the possibility that the taxpayers will have to pay for their legal fees.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott Holcomb, would allow state legislators from DeKalb to vote on appointments to the Ethics Board based on recommendations from the same outside groups.

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“If there’s an issue with the appointment process, this will resolve it … to ensure that we have a system that will continue,” said Holcomb, D-Atlanta, during a meeting of the county’s legislative delegation.

But Rep. Vernon Jones objected to Holcomb’s bill, saying legislators should wait until Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson rules on the lawsuit.

Channel 2's Richard Belcher says the legal challenge comes from a former elected official facing ethics charges.

“Why are they rushing to get it changed?” said Jones, D-Lithonia. “We’re trying to draft and pass legislation that has already been flawed.”

DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman said Jones is trying to prevent the Board of Ethics from reviewing allegations of misconduct among elected county officials and employees.

About 92 percent of voters approved changes to the Ethics Board in 2015, making it more independent by removing appointment power from DeKalb’s commissioners and CEO. The board oversees the behavior of DeKalb elected officials as well as county employees.

“Certain members of the DeKalb delegation are perhaps not interested in seeing the Ethics Board do its job, which I find alarming,” Kalberman said. “This is an effort to prevent the board from moving forward and from hearing more cases.”

DeKalb's internal auditor arrives as the county is trying to rebuild after years of investigations, accusations, ethics charges and assorted mismanagement. (www.accessatlanta.com)

Holcomb voted for the legislation, along with Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. 

Jones voted against the bill, along with Rep. Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain, and Rep. Coach Williams, D-Avondale Estates. 

The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Decatur, declined to cast a tie-breaking vote. 

Other ethics bills are still alive in the Georgia General Assembly.

A similar measure, Senate Bill 273, would also give state lawmakers a vote on Board of Ethics nominations by outside groups.

“We’re going to hear from the Senate,” Stephenson said. “When you know there’s a bill coming over, why don’t we all sit down as a community and have a discussion?”

Jones has proposed a separate bill that would return the board’s appointment power to the DeKalb Commission and CEO. Jones hasn’t made his bill public.

In the year since voters overhauled the DeKalb Board of Ethics, it has resolved 11 complaints and started an ethics education program for county employees. The board also reprimanded two former aides to county commissioners for using government charge cards for personal purposes.

Kalberman’s annual report in January said that while the county still has problems, most of them arose from a small number of individuals.

“While I cannot say that the ethical health of DeKalb County is strong, I am certain that the work to bring systemic, positive change is well underway,” Kalberman wrote.

Richard Belcher reports

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