DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — State Rep. Matthew Wilson (D-Brookhaven) has put forward legislation he intends to file in January to revive the DeKalb County Board of Ethics.
In 2015 DeKalb voters overwhelmingly approved the formation of an ethics board, but a 2018 Georgia Supreme Court ruling has rendered the board unable to function.
In November, DeKalb voters said ‘No’ to legislation that would have fixed the hole left by the Supreme Court but also contained other changes some said would gut the board’s effectiveness.
Now, Wilson has put forward what he calls a “clean” bill that addresses the problem created by the court ruling.
The law as passed in 2015 allowed four of the board’s seven positions to be appointed by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, DeKalb Bar Association, Leadership DeKalb and by the universities within DeKalb. The court ruled these appointments unconstitutional because these bodies were not elected and are not answerable to DeKalb voters.
The other members are appointed by the DeKalb County legislative delegation, Probate Court and chief judge of the Superior Court. With only three members, the ethics board has been unable to make decisions.
In 2019, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 7, introduced by State Sen. Emanuel Jones. Critics said this law would also have made the ethics board less independent from the county CEO and the County Commission, positions the board is supposed to oversee.
The CEO would be able to make an appointment to the ethics board, and the CEO and commissioners would have to approve the ethics board’s policy. The legislation also would have replaced the county’s ethics officer with an ethics administrator, essentially a clerical position with no required experience in law or ethics work. The law would have required county employees to file complaints through Human Resources before turning complaints over to the ethics board.
Those changes could not have gone into effect unless approved through a referendum, and by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, voters said they were too much to swallow.
“When DeKalb voters voted down SB 7 by 61 percent, they sent us a clear mandate: give us a clean bill to fix the constitutional issues first,” Wilson said. “That is exactly what my bill does.”
Wilson, a Brookhaven trial lawyer, was first elected in 2018 to represent District 80, which includes parts of Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and Chamblee.
Wilson’s bill as drafted only addresses the ethics board’s appointment process. If passed, the Superior Court and Probate Court would still get one appointment each, as well as DeKalb’s chief magistrate. Rather than one appointment for the entire DeKalb legislative delegation, the State House and Senate would each get one appointment.
Two members would be decided by a consensus of the mayors and city council members of the cities wholly within DeKalb County: Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, Chamblee, Clarkston, Decatur, Doraville, Dunwoody, Lithonia, Pine Lake, Stonecrest, Stone Mountain and Tucker.
Three DeKalb commissioners have thrown their support behind the legislation.
“We call on the DeKalb Delegation to simply change the appointment process and make no other substantive changes,” Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson said. “This is an easy fix that can be accomplished within a few days of the upcoming session.”
DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council, an organization that spearheaded opposition to the referendum this fall, released a statement that it was encouraged by the work done ahead of the legislative session and it hoped for transparency in the process.