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Final DeKalb ethics town hall draws more referendum opposition

Legislators listen as residents speak about the ethics referendum on the ballot this fall.
Legislators listen as residents speak about the ethics referendum on the ballot this fall.

Credit: J.D. CAPELOUTO/AJC

Credit: J.D. CAPELOUTO/AJC

The meeting came days after the DeKalb chapter of the NAACP endorsed voting “yes”

Nearly two weeks away from Election Day, the final legislative town hall for DeKalb drew staunch opposition to a ballot referendum that would restructure the county ethics board.

Critics say the referendum, which is on the ballot for every DeKalb County voter this fall, would weaken the county’s ethics procedures. But supporters, including the DeKalb chapter of the NAACP, argue voting down the referendum would leave the county without any ethical oversight.

The Monday town hall was attended by fewer than half of the state representatives and senators who represent DeKalb. The seven representatives and senator at the meeting were against the referendum.

» RELATED: DeKalb County legislators defend ethics bill as criticism mounts

The question is on the ballot because DeKalb’s legislators passed Senate Bill 7 in the General Assembly earlier this year. Initially, Senate Bill 7 only changed the way members of the DeKalb Ethics Board are appointed in order to comply with a Georgia Supreme Court ruling.

But as it bounced back and forth between the House and Senate, the bill was expanded. The final version suggests DeKalb County employees funnel complaints through the human resources department before turning to the ethics board. The board would no longer be required to hire an ethics officer to investigate complaints, instead replacing that position with an “ethics administrator.”

Critics said the ethics administrator role is more clerical in nature. Those pushing to fail the referendum say it’s crucial that the county hire a full-time ethics officer, a position responsible for taking complaints and sometimes doing preliminary investigations before they are brought to the board. The new structure 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.

The DeKalb County commission must give final approval to the ethics board rules every two years under the legislation, creating a new layer of oversight. And the board would have to abandon investigations of elected officials or county employees if they resign, retire or complete their terms in office.

» MORE DETAILS: DeKalb reps move forward with ethics bill despite heavy criticism

“Our county continues to need a strong ethics function,” said Mary Hinkel, a DeKalb resident who chairs a group pushing to have the referendum voted down. “We are going backwards with this bill. The question is ‘Why?’”

Joe Gebbia, a member of the Brookhaven City Council, said he was “appalled that this is happening,” arguing that weak ethics measures hurt the county’s reputation and have negative impacts on economic development.

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)
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)

And Rep. Scott Holcomb, who represents portions of Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville, said he “can't for the life of me understand” why some of the provisions were added to the bill.

The town hall came several days after the NAACP’s DeKalb chapter endorsed the measure and urged residents to vote “yes” on the referendum.

In a statement, the organization said the concerns related to the qualifications and powers of the ethics administrator are “unfounded and unnecessary.”

“A “No” vote leaves DeKalb without any effective ethics oversight, but a “Yes” gives citizens and employees a Board of Ethics that can begin the evolution of strong ethical governance in DeKalb County,” the NAACP said in a statement Friday.

The county’s ethics board has been dormant since the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the way it picks members is unconstitutional.

Early voting is now underway at locations across DeKalb County ahead of Election Day on Nov. 5.

» MORE: DeKalb lawmakers will attend ethics town halls despite `cancellations’

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, worked with other delegation members to come up with dates for four town hall meetings across the county ahead of the election. Public comment during the first two meeting in Lithonia and Tucker were dominated by people who oppose the changes.

Jones then announced the remaining two town halls were canceled. But other legislators pledged to still hold the public meetings.

The ballot question is countywide, and every DeKalb city has municipal elections this fall. The ethics referendum is the only measure on the ballot for residents in unincorporated DeKalb, who make up more than half of the county population.

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In other news:

The Stone Mountain City Council is set to vote Nov. 7 to rename Venable Street to Eva Mamie Lane.