New DeKalb County ethics legislation appears poised to pass

Georgia state Rep. Viola Davis. SPECIAL PHOTO

Credit: Special photo

Credit: Special photo

Georgia state Rep. Viola Davis. SPECIAL PHOTO

DeKalb voters may get to weigh in on another attempt to reshape ethics oversight in county government.

New legislation crafted by state Rep. Viola Davis and her counterparts in DeKalb’s House delegation would fix the problematic appointment process for the county’s ethics board. It would also keep the current county ethics officer position, while creating a new administrative position that supporters say would add balance when adjudicating complaints against county employees and officials.

The legislation cleared the House on Thursday morning. There’s some language to be smoothed out, but Sen. Emanuel Jones, leader of DeKalb’s Senate delegation, said no significant issues are expected in that chamber.

If the bill gains final passage, the revised ethics law would be put up for a public vote in November — just a year after voters shot down a similar referendum.

But Davis and other legislators say the changes proposed in House Bill 1243 include the extra oversight that some have pushed for while removing components that voters found unpalatable in 2019.

Mary Hinkel, chair of the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council, said her influential group will support the new legislation if it’s passed as currently written.

“It maintains the independence of the board and the strength of the ethics officer position,” she said, “while providing the checks and balances called for by previous critics.”

DeKalb's ethics board has been effectively neutered since 2018, when a Georgia Supreme Court justice ruled that the use of private organizations to appoint some members of the seven-person board is unconstitutional.

The new bill addresses that issue by placing three appointments each in the hands of DeKalb’s state House and Senate delegations. The seventh appointment is given to the county tax commissioner.

DeKalb’s Clerk of Superior Court would also appoint two alternate ethics board members, who would serve in the case of vacancies or conflicts of interest.

The bill would also create a new “ethics administrator” position. That person would be responsible for collecting and documenting all complaints before passing them along to the ethics board.

The board would then decide if complaints merited a full-fledged investigation. If so, such complaints would be handed over to the ethics officer.

“The intent is that the board is given the final authority of what turns into a full investigation,” state Rep. Rennita Shannon said during a recent committee meeting.

Critics have taken issue with the current process, in which ethics officer Stacey Kalberman can make recommendations about whether or not there’s probable cause to take a complaint any further. Because Kalberman is also tasked with completing investigations, opponents like state Rep. Vernon Jones often referred to her as “judge, jury and executioner.”

A different tweak to the process — which involved requiring those filing complaints to first go to the county’s human resources department — was largely responsible for sinking last year’s referendum. Many ethics advocates and voters suggested the plan was actually an attempt to weaken ethics oversight in DeKalb.

That provision is not in the new legislation.

Davis, who was a longtime community activist before becoming a legislator, said she promised fellow whistleblowers and watchdogs that she would address ethics in her new role.

“I take pride in living up to my promise,” she said Wednesday.