State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Lithonia (standing at left) listens to public comment from Mary Hinkel (center, in white) during the first of four town hall meetings scheduled by the DeKalb County Delegation to discuss the ethics referendums. After referendum opponents like Hinkel packed out the first two meetings, the final two were cancelled. (TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)

DeKalb lawmakers will attend ethics town halls despite `cancellations’

Georgia Sen. Emanuel Jones’ office announced this week the cancellation of two remaining town hall meetings intended to educate DeKalb County voters on the ethics referendum provision on the ballot.

Several lawmakers responded first with dismay about Jones’ decision, and later with defiance.

The meetings will go on, several legislators told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, because they made promises to answer questions about the controversial proposal ahead of Election Day in November.

“We’ve made a commitment to constituents to be accessible over the next month, and I fully intend to fulfill that promise,” Rep. Matt Wilson, D-Brookhaven, said.

The disagreement over the remaining town hall meetings exposes the divide over the changes contained in Senate Bill 7, an ethics bill approved by the General Assembly earlier this year which applies only to DeKalb. The bill requires a referendum, with a simple majority vote needed to enact the law.

When the legislation was first introduced, it only changed the appointment process for Ethics Board members in order to comply with a Georgia Supreme Court ruling. Other provisions were added later by lawmakers who said the board’s procedures needed revision and tightening.

Some of those changes were derided by opponents as eroding ethics reforms approved by DeKalb voters in 2015. For example, the ethics officer role has been changed to an ethics administrator with less authority. County employees must now turn to the human resources department first before filing a complaint to the ethics board.

The head of Emory University’s Center of Ethics reviewed the changes and penned a letter criticizing the proposal.

“The bottom line is that this bill is clearly meant to weaken and dilute the excellent policy passed in 2015, without any convincing reasons to weaken the bill,” Paul Root Wolpe wrote. “DeKalb is slipping back to a former posture that got it in trouble in the first place.”

Gov. Brian Kemp allowed Senate Bill 7 to proceed to referendum without his signature, saying he was neutral and wanted to allow voters to have the final say. The referendum is the only countywide issue before DeKalb residents this year.

Early voting begins Oct. 14.

Jones, D-Decatur, worked with other delegation members to come up with dates for four town hall meetings across the county ahead of the Nov. 5 election. Public comment during the first meeting on Sept. 16 in Lithonia was dominated by people who oppose the changes and are part of a campaign urging others to vote “no” on the referendum.

A similar crowd turned in Tucker on Tuesday. The cancellation of the remaining two meetings was announced the next day.

The email from Jones’ office said delegation members decided that Kemp’s proposed budget cuts and layoffs deserved their attention and the town halls should be held closer to the 2020 legislative session, when additional changes to DeKalb’s ethics laws may be proposed.

Jones refused to explain the cancellations further when reached by phone Friday.

“I don’t really need to give a reason,” he said. “I’ve had two town hall meetings.”

Jones said that some of his House and Senate colleagues may still attend the meetings scheduled for Oct. 15 and 21, but he does not plan to be there to explain the contents of SB 7.

Lawmakers also have scheduled their own meetings and forums in their districts, so there are other opportunities to discuss a variety of topics with voters.

Still, there are many delegation members who believe the ethics-focused town halls are necessary and should continue. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she will attend both of the “cancelled” meetings.

“I intend to be there because I have been advertising to my constituents,” Oliver said. “ I think the right thing to do is to show up.”

Read more | DeKalb County legislators defend ethics bill as criticism mounts

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