Memo to candidates: Make ethics a top priority

2010 is a statewide election year. It's been decades since so many posts were up for grabs, with incumbents retiring and several statewide officers, legislators, and other public officials attempting to "move up" to higher office.

Given the lack of progress in recent years in making Georgia's government more open and accountable, will the next election offer hope for the "new day in Georgia" that we were led to expect when power switched hands earlier in the decade?

The current leadership's new Georgia is looking a lot like the old one to us. After some good proposals by Gov. Sonny Perdue, and a few small steps forward in 2005, the governor and the General Assembly's leaders have essentially shut the door on ethics reform.

The governor recently signed the first bill in four years that has touched the Georgia ethics code. Senate Bill 168 actually weakened the enforcement capability of our State Ethics Commission.

That body, already limited to authority over only a narrow range of the law, had their 2010 budget cut over 30 percent and had its rule-making authority rescinded.

Today, when state and local government dollars are more scarce than ever, accountability is more important than ever.

Yet, given the opportunity in 2009 to take action on six good bills that would foster more responsible and accountable government, the Legislature failed to pass any of them.

As the nation's 9th largest state, Georgia should rank among the top in ethics, not somewhere in the middle of the pack. There is solid support in the legislative rank and file for a slate of reforms that would make a difference in how Georgia's state and local government is run, and how citizens perceive it.

Here are six bills we think deserve passage:

» Senate Bill 96 would mandate local ethics boards for all cities, counties and school boards so that citizens have a place to bring complaints of conflict of interest.

» House Resolution 229 would establish an independent citizen's redistricting commission and take the highly politicized process out of the legislature when redistricting is done after the 2010 census.

» House Bill 601 would reform our judicial election process by curbing practices of bundled donations and independent committees.

» House Bills 130-136 would allow Georgia's counties to move to non-partisan elections for offices like sheriff, district attorney, clerk of court, and the like. This would remove unnecessary partisan politics from these non-political jobs.

» House Bill 855 would stop automatic escalation of contribution limits, curtail campaign-to-campaign contributions, restrict lobbyist gifts, and extend the waiting period before lobbying after leaving public service to include the executive branch.

» Senate Bill 17 would reinstate lobbyist filing fees and increase penalties for late filings, providing much needed revenue sources to the beleaguered State Ethics Commission.

We salute those sponsoring these important bills, men and women from both parties.

We need the same enlightenment from the leadership of the state, who can move us forward if they choose. To those seeking higher office in 2010: If you want us to trust you, give us more reason to do so by supporting a platform of accountability.

Bill Bozarth is executive director of Common Cause Georgia.