03/13/2018 — Decatur, GA - DeKalb County commissioner Kathie Gannon during a DeKalb County board of commissioners meeting in Decatur, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

DeKalb commission asks for quick fix to ethics board

DeKalb commissioners have formalized their request for a quick fix to the county’s ethics board, a sometimes controversial panel that has been neutered by a court ruling and a failed 2019 referendum.

Commissioners voted 5-2 on Tuesday to adopt a resolution asking DeKalb’s delegation to the General Assembly to change how some appointments to the ethics board are made. In August 2018, the Georgia Supreme Court deemed appointments made by non-elected community groups unconstitutional — and the ethics board has been effectively dormant since.

The resolution supported by commissioners would take away the four appointments previously given to private groups and give them to DeKalb’s legislative delegation, local judges and the county tax commissioner.

Supporters say the fix would get the ethics panel — which has the weighty task of investigating corruption and conflicts of interest — back up and running as quickly as possible. Bigger picture reforms to the ethics process would be considered separately.

The legislative session started Monday.

“The intent is to have this done quickly and not turned into sausage at the session,” said Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who presented the resolution along with colleagues Steve Bradshaw and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson.

Plenty of sausage was made at the Capitol in 2019, with legislators taking a bill initially aimed at addressing just the appointment process and turning it into a larger, more divisive package.

The final version of last year’s bill required DeKalb County employees to go through human resources before filing ethics complaints.It also changed the definition of which employees are subject to the ethics board’s oversight and replaced the ethics officer position with an ethics administrator with fewer duties.

Critics said the changes weakened ethics oversight and mounted opposition campaigns. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the changes in a November referendum, sending officials back to the drawing board.

County officials believe changing the appointment process will not require another referendum, calling it a “minor fix” to the ethics ordinance originally approved by voters in 2015.

The changes proposed last year were largely driven by some officials’ distaste for current ethics officer Stacey Kalberman and the powers she’s afforded. A whiff of that sentiment re-emerged during Tuesday’s commission meeting, suggesting even small changes might still involve an uphill fight.

District 5 representative Mereda Davis Johnson was one of two commissioners to vote against the resolution. Like colleague Larry Johnson, she took issue with the matter being addressed by the full commission without first being heard by the operations committee on which she sits.

But Davis Johnson also aired concerns about tweaking the appointment process and otherwise letting the ethics board resume operations as currently constructed. She alluded to Kalberman without referring to her by name.

“There’s other issues in that ethics bill,” Davis Johnson said. “You have one person taking the information, deciding whether there’s probable cause, investigating the case, then bringing it to the board, then making a recommendation. I want it to be fair.”

Davis Johnson’s motion to defer the resolution and have it heard by the operations committee later this month failed by a 5-2 vote.

It remains to be seen if DeKalb’s larger legislative delegation will have an appetite for the type of quick fix pushed by commissioners. But state Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, has already drafted a bill that changes nothing but the appointment process.

Wilson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that he hopes the bill will be put on the delegation’s agenda for its first meeting of the session next week. From there it will be assigned to a committee, which will have a week to review it and report back.

A second reading will then be held in late January, clearing the way for Wilson to seek the signatures he needs from nine of 16 delegation members in order to formally introduce the bill in the House.

“The people of DeKalb County spoke clearly last November: they want a ‘clean fix,’” Wilson said. “Today we saw the commission wants a ‘clean fix.’ Given that the vast majority of House districts in DeKalb overwhelmingly voted down Senate Bill 7 last November, I’m hopeful that we can work together to get this bill passed in the next few weeks and get the ethics board back up and running.”

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