Polls in DeKalb County are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. next Tuesday.
Photo: JOHN SPINK/AJC
Photo: JOHN SPINK/AJC

Know before you vote: DeKalb County ethics referendum

Though it’s an odd-numbered year, every DeKalb County voter will be able to head to the polls Nov. 5. That’s because there is a special countywide election regarding the restructuring of the county ethics board.

Here’s what the ballot question asks:

“Shall the Act be approved which revises the Board of Ethics for DeKalb County?”

But what exactly does that mean, you may ask?

Earlier this year, the representatives and senators who represent DeKalb County in the Georgia General Assembly set out to pass a bill that changed the way members are appointed to the ethics board, which is the independent body that investigates possible ethical violations and complaints within the county.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (right) speaks before the DeKalb House delegation about the ethics bill in March. (Photo: J.D. Capelouto/jdcapelouto@ajc.com)
Photo: J.D. Capelouto/jdcapelouto@ajc.com

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year that the way members were previously appointed is unconstitutional, so the board has essentially been dormant since then.

But the DeKalb lawmakers ended up passing an ethics bill that would change much more than the appointment process. Now, county residents — those who live in cities as well as unincorporated areas — will vote whether or not to approve those changes and the board’s restructuring.

There has been vocal opposition to the proposed changes. Several citizen groups are urging people to vote “no” on the controversial referendum, arguing that it guts the powers and oversight of the ethics board. Other groups and officials say it crucial that the ethics board be revamped and are pushing to pass the referendum. 

Here are some of the main provisions of the new structure that have generated conversation over the last several months:

1. The appointment process: The bill does address the appointment process, which is what the Georgia Supreme Court took issue with last year. Under the new structure, four board members would be appointed by the DeKalb lawmakers in the Legislature, one by the judge of the DeKalb Probate Court, one by the chief judge of the Superior Court and one by the DeKalb CEO and commissioners. The court previously ruled that members of the seven-member board could not be appointed by outside, non-governmental groups.

Mary Hinkel, a DeKalb resident who is part of the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council, speaks at a recent town hall in opposition to the ethics ballot question.
Photo: Tia Mitchell/AJC

2. The ethics officer: The bill removes the position of ethics officer, replacing it with an “ethics administrator” role. This new position is more clerical in nature, cannot start an investigation or bring one to the board, and generally has less power and oversight, according to critics from groups like the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council. Supporters of the referendum point out that the board would still be able to hire its own staff,  attorney and private investigator.

3. The HR provision: The new rules say DeKalb employees should first go to human resources before making an ethics complaint to the board. Groups pushing for a “no” vote say this will discourage people from alerting the board to possible ethics violations. State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, previously told the AJC that he does not want the ethics board to get in the way of matters that can be resolved internally, and that an employee wouldn’t punished for bypassing HR. Jones wrote the bill that paved the way for the ethics referendum.

4. Rules approval: Under the new structure, the county CEO can review the policies and procedures of the ethics board, and the commissioners must vote whether to approve them. Critics say this could weaken the policies, since the commissioners and members of the CEO’s office may potentially be the subject of ethics investigations. Sen. Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, who is in support of the referendum, said it is important for commissioners to be informed and have “buy-in”on the process. So far, county elected officials have been split on the proposed ethics changes. At least two commissioners, Nancy Jester and Kathie Gannon, have urged their constituents to vote “no.” CEO Michael Thurmond told Channel 2 Action News he will vote to approve the referendum, but said the bill was imperfect.

Every DeKalb voter, in cities and unincorporated areas, can vote on the ethics referendum.
Video: Bob Andres/2018 AJC file

5. What if the referendum fails? The Board of Ethics could continue to sit dormant. The DeKalb chapter of the NAACP, pushing for the referendum to pass, said in a statement that 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.” But critics like the DCAC say it is better to have no ethics board than a weak one. If the ballot question fails, DeKalb’s legislators could return to the drawing board during the 2020 session and pass another bill that addresses the ethics board. Henson acknowledged the concerns and said if the measure passes, legislators could still make tweaks to the ethics board next session to address those criticisms.

Curious to learn more? Here is some of the AJC’s past coverage on the ethics board proposal:

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that the legislation “suggests” county employees go through human resources before filing a complaint with the ethics board. The legislation in fact states that employees “shall” do so.

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