DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — By a margin of nearly 2 to 1, DeKalb County voters rejected a referendum that would have revised the DeKalb County Ethics Act. 

The measure was rejected by 61.3 percent of the voters.

Community members and some county officials had encouraged voters to check “No,” arguing that the new provisions would have gutted the Ethics Act passed in 2015. 

“I call it the ‘No Ethics Bill,”’ said DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester, whose district includes Dunwoody. 

If passed, the new law 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 require county employees to file complaints through Human Resources before turning complaints over to the ethics board.

Critics said the law would also have made the Board of Ethics less independent from the county CEO and the County Commission, positions it 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.

In 2015, 92 percent of voters established a new ethics board to oversee county operations. Last year, parts of that law were ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court because some of the ethics board members were selected by private organizations, such as the bar association or universities, rather than by elected officials.

Since that decision, the board has been unable to operate. Earlier this year, state Sen. Emanuel Jones introduced a bill that established new rules for selecting ethics board members, but rather than simply fixing the problem cited by the court decision, there were additional changes.

Those changes could not have gone into effect unless approved through a referendum, and by a wide margin, voters said they were too much to swallow

“The DeKalb voters have spoken,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. “The focus now shifts back to the General Assembly where the legislative process begins anew.”

The ethics board is still essentially inoperable until the General Assembly passes a new piece of legislation and that law is approved by voters. 

“DeKalb needs a strong ethics board,” Thurmond said. “Until the Legislature cures the flaws in the current legislation, we are in the untenable position of operating without an ethics board. This current state of affairs is unacceptable.”

DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council Chair Mary Hinkel, who spearheaded opposition to the new bill, said the fight was not easy but she was proud of the outcome.

“The voters said, ‘we hear you, and we agree,’” she said. “We have proven that it is important to be informed about what is on your ballot, that words matter, that every vote counts, and that citizen engagement is fundamental to our democracy.”

State Rep. Mike Wilensky, who represents all of Dunwoody and parts of Doraville and Chamblee, congratulated voters for rejecting the revisions on Twitter. 

“Now, in January, the DeKalb delegation can create legislation that will improve the current DeKalb ethics law, not weaken it,” he said.

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