Tempers, profanity mark DeKalb County delegation’s latest ethics debate

From left, state representatives Matthew Wilson, Billy Mitchell, Becky Evans and Karla Drenner (standing) during a Wednesday, Feb. 19, meeting of the DeKalb County House delegation. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM
From left, state representatives Matthew Wilson, Billy Mitchell, Becky Evans and Karla Drenner (standing) during a Wednesday, Feb. 19, meeting of the DeKalb County House delegation. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

DeKalb County's state House delegation discussed ethics legislation again Wednesday. The conversation followed a familiar chaotic pattern — and the real debate hasn't even started yet.

Last November, DeKalb voters shot down a divisive attempt to reshape ethics oversight in the county government. The failed referendum left DeKalb's ethics board in limbo and sent state legislators back to the drawing board.

The drawing, as it were, has not gone smoothly. A few weeks into the current legislative session, little progress has been made.

When the session started in January, Rep. Matthew Wilson submitted a bill that would provide a "clean fix" to the ethics board's appointment process. A 2018 ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court found that the process for appointing some ethics board members was unconstitutional.

The content of Wilson’s bill — which also has the backing of more senior Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver — was destined to be controversial all by itself. Many legislators want to try again to tackle a more comprehensive overhaul of DeKalb’s ethics process, suggesting the county’s ethics officer has too much power. Just fixing the appointment process and getting the ethics board back in action, then, is not especially appealing to them.

But Wilson and Oliver have tried to force the bill through without a sign-off from a committee, relying on a more literal interpretation of the delegation’s rules to try and buck tradition.

The duo continued their efforts during Wednesday’s meeting, and an argument over rules and procedures devolved into shouting and name-calling.

A majority of the present delegation members ultimately voted that Wilson and Oliver were not acting within the rules.

But along the way, Rep. Vernon Jones called Rep. Mike Wilensky a “chicken[expletive]” more than once. And Oliver fired a shot across the bow as she left the room.

“You don’t approve of ethics,” she told the representatives who didn’t vote in her favor.

Rep. Doreen Carter — who had previously pleaded for a civil discussion — recoiled at the accusation, saying she’d tried to be patient with the way things had been handled. Carter said Oliver was the one without ethics, then turned to a nearby reporter and repeated her statement, clapping after each word for emphasis.

“Mary. Margaret. Oliver. Has. No. Ethics,” she said.

In a subsequent discussion with a smaller group of legislators, cooler heads prevailed to some degree. The committee being established to review ethics proposals may soon meet for the first time.

Then the real debates will begin.