In a tight vote Wednesday, state representatives whose districts include DeKalb County made a final decision on a closely watched bill that restructures the county Board of Ethics.
At the end of a three-hour meeting, the delegation voted 7-6 to approve a revised version of Sen. Emanuel Jones’ bill, which drew condemnation from several lawmakers and residents. The bill was criticized since it does not require the hiring of an ethics officer, and suggests employees should go through human resources before filing a formal ethics complaint.
The issue has dominated debate among DeKalb lawmakers over the past several weeks, and Wednesday’s vote signaled a win for Jones, D-Decatur, who filed a shorter ethics bill in the Senate earlier this session but has since revised it.
Jones called it a “great day for ethics.”
“I think we have a bill that the community can embrace,” he said after the vote. “It certainly creates more transparency and it addresses a lot of the concerns that I’ve heard from all of the stakeholders.”
Back in 2015, voters overwhelmingly approved changes to make the board more independent by allowing outside groups to appoint a majority of Ethics Board members. But the Georgia Supreme Court ruled last August that a majority of the members must be appointed by public officials, and the ethics board has essentially sat dormant since.
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So in order to revive the board, DeKalb legislators have set out to pass another bill this session fixing the issues that were pointed out by the Supreme Court. But this bill seeks additional changes to what was passed in 2015 — changes some say make the Board of Ethics less transparent.
“What we passed weakens the ability of the ethics commission to function well,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who said confusion during the hearing over the bill led to a lack of understanding and clarity.
Jones’ bill creates an ethics administrator role that is more clerical in nature. It essentially removes the position of an ethics officer, but still gives the board the authority to hire an ethics officer, attorney or private investigator to handle complaints.
Several residents took issue with this provision, and said it's crucial that the county hire a full-time ethics officer, which is a position responsible for taking complaints and sometimes doing preliminary investigations before they are brought to the board.
“Even as strong as the board can be, it still needs leadership, consistent leadership,” said DeKalb resident Mary Hinkel, who spoke out against the bill.
The bill also says a county employee should “exhaust all administrative remedies” before filing a complaint. This includes going through the county’s human resources department.
Critics said this would create a delay in the process and prevent some employees from making complaints in the first place.
“Get HR out of the ethics business,” resident Betty Blondeau pleaded to the lawmakers.
Jones, however, said he does not want the ethics board to get in the way of matters that can be resolved internally.
“On too many occasions, the ethics committee had interfered between the employee and employer relations,” he said. He added that employees would not be punished if they circumvented the HR process while making an ethics complaint.
A motion to strike the HR provision from the bill failed 6-7.
The new structure comes with some “serious weaknesses,” said Decatur attorney Lawton Jordan, a former member and chair of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.
Jordan, who has not studied the DeKalb bill closely, said generally that a full-time ethics officer is important to have, since it presents a way to professionally handle cases before the board considers them.
Without one, he said, “a lot of stuff is going to slip through the cracks.”
He also said human resources personnel might not be well-equipped to handle high-stakes ethics complaints.
For a bill to become law, identical versions must be approved in the House and Senate. Because it is local legislation that only affects DeKalb, the decision-making rests mainly with the members of the county’s legislative delegation.
If two more DeKalb House members sign onto Jones’ bill (bringing the number of supporters to nine, a majority in the delegation), it would be brought forward for a vote by the full House and Senate and likely pass. Voters would then have to ratify the changes in a countywide referendum in November.
The bill approved Wednesday gives the House and Senate delegations the power to appoint two members each. The county commission, county probate judge and chief Superior Court judge would each select one member.
The seven board members would serve terms of two years, a one-year decrease from the current law.
The bill also requires that people with personal interests in an ethics matter disclose that to the board.
Residents like Hinkel said a weak ethics board would revert the county back to "the nightmare days of the recent past" in DeKalb, citing investigations into corruption at the county's highest levels.
John Turner, representing the group DeKalb Strong, said Jones’ bill would “weaken the ethics board so substantially that we believe it would be rendered much less effective.”
When the bill started in the Senate, it was a short proposal that focused solely on how ethics board members are appointed.
Since then, Jones added to his bill, and fielded a dueling House bill from Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia. Vernon Jones’ proposal, which did more to roll back the board’s powers, was not brought up at Wednesday’s meeting. Rep. Vernon Jones was not at Tuesday’s meeting.
— Staff reporter Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.
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Credit: Henry County Sheriff's Office