Referendums can be tricky. Politicians often wrap questions in dense, indecipherable verbiage or even try to sneak something by you in plain sight.
You might go to the polls and see a ballot item asking, “Aren’t puppies cute?”
You click “Yes,” and next thing you know, some senator’s brother-in-law is getting a no-bid contract to sell food to dog pounds across Middle Georgia.
DeKalb County voters next month will face a seemingly innocuous question: “Shall the Act be approved which revises the Board of Ethics for DeKalb County?”
Hmm. I can almost see voters’ thought processes while trying to decide that question: “Ethics are good, right? And almost a quorum of the former County Commission has been indicted. So I suppose I’ll vote yes!”
However, if it read: “Shall the Act be rewritten to weaken the Ethics Board and stick it to an ethics officer who has overstepped her bounds?”
Well, then voters might not be so enthused.
That’s the argument being waged by a small, vocal group of activists and some state legislators who oppose this effort. They say this is a scam that guts the Ethics Board and sends the county toward the days when good government got the side eye.
“Intentional confusion is one of the old-time tricks of legislators,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, who’s been at the Legislature for decades and knows subterfuge when she sees it. “There are shenanigans in how you word referendums. They usually pass. I predict this one will be different.”
Oliver was on the losing side of a 7-6 vote by the DeKalb House delegation that sent this ethical softening to the voters.
Legislators were dealing with this issue because the state Supreme Court last year ruled that DeKalb’s Board of Ethics was unconstitutional because most of its members were picked by private groups — such as the bar association or the chamber of commerce — rather than by elected officials. That put the board on ice for lack of enough members.
To fix that, state Sen. Emanuel Jones introduced a straightforward solution this year to have elected officials select Ethics Board members.
It was a simple tweak to put the Ethics Board back in business. But nothing is simple in DeKalb where — to quote myself from a few months ago — political fiefdoms flourish, personal feuds fester, racial resentments seethe and ethics enforcement suffers.
Jones’ simple solution went over to the state House for passage and was quickly, um, let’s say it got a lot more complicated.
At the root of it all is ethics officer Stacey Kalberman, a hard-nosed investigator who got run off by the state for investigating former Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican. (She later won a lawsuit that determined she was fired for doing her job too well.) She then brought her act to Democratic DeKalb and it didn't play there, either.
In the state House there were secret meetings, a little finagling, and next thing you know the proposed Ethics Board, the one going to voters, would not have a bulldog like Kalberman. Instead it would have a glorified secretary. And county employees couldn’t bring complaints to the Ethics Board. They’d first have to go to DeKalb’s HR department, which could be akin to telling your boss you think he or she is being shady.
This is all for the voters to ratify next month. Or to rightfully send packing.
Jones says he didn’t work to weaken the Ethics Board, he had to make compromises and get changes for something to pass. “This does not weaken the board. It shuffles (the authority) back to the seven-member board.”
Jones said he heard complaints that Kalberman overstepped her authority, that she “goes out and finds something and then she’ll go out and investigate.”
That is, as opposed to her waiting for the public or county employees to step forward and file complaints.
“It’s not just the CEO. A lot of members have had issues with Kalberman,” Jones said. He was referring to DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, who had a public dispute with Kalberman. She criticized the CEO’s responses on limiting meals and gifts that high-ranking DeKalb officials can receive.
“You might argue that this person should never have had this kind of authority,” Jones said of Kalberman.
Jones called for four public meetings to discuss the matter, but got an earful from opponents who packed the first two meetings. Then he pulled the plug on the last two.
He added that race, which always bubbles at the surface in DeKalb, is at hand here.
“This bill was voted along racial lines, and they’re continuing to open those fissures,” he said, referring to the opponents. The six House members who voted against the bill in the 7-6 delegation vote are white. Those for it are black, along with one Asian member.
But ethics is not a black-and-white issue. The county commissioner caught stealing the most money, Elaine Boyer, is white. And the legislator who has fought the hardest against corruption and for transparency in government — Rep. Viola Davis, is black.
Patricia Killingsworth, a former Ethics Board member fighting to get this referendum defeated, said it's "insulting" that Jones is bringing up race. The current Ethics Board with its tough investigator was approved by 92 percent of the population four years ago. That is, voters who were black and white.
Those fighting the referendum have an uphill battle. But a quirk of November’s ballot may be on their side.
The Ethics Board question is the only item on the ballot in unincorporated DeKalb, which is about two-thirds of the county. That means turnout in those areas will likely be in the single digits. But in Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Tucker and other DeKalb cities, where many of those opposed to an Ethics Board revision reside, there are municipal elections that will draw voters out in force.
Always remember, informed voters can make a difference.
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