DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — When DeKalb voters head to the polls this year, they will see a referendum that states “Shall the Act be approved which revises the Board of Ethics for DeKalb County?”
That opaque wording could lead voters to adopt an oversight plan that the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council and some county officials say will gut the county’s ethics policy.
“This bill is clearly meant to weaken and dilute the excellent policy passed in 2015, without any convincing reasons to weaken the bill,” stated Paull Root, director of the Emory Center of Ethics. “DeKalb is slipping back to a former posture that got it in trouble in the first place. I would agree that this bill should be strongly opposed.”
If passed, the Board of Ethics’ independence would be weakened, critics say, by replacing the ethics officer with an ethics administrator, essentially a clerical position with no required experience in law or ethics work.
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 its 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 caused by the court decision, there were additional changes.
By changing the ethics officer to an ethics administrator, the position would no longer be able to initiate or bring an investigation to the Board of Ethics.
The law would also make 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.
“To us, this is an inherent conflict of interest,” said Mary Hinkel, chair of the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council. “These provisions weaken the independence of the board. They create an opportunity for mischief by allowing the CEO to appoint a member to the very board that oversees the ethical behavior of the CEO and the Board of Commissioners.”
The law would also require county employees to file complaints through Human Resources before turning complaints over to the ethics board.
Speaking at a recent Dunwoody Homeowner Association meeting, DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester said no employee would bring a complaint under such a system.
“I call it the ‘No Ethics Bill,”’ Jester said. “It really guts what the citizens had in their wisdom passed in 2015.”
Hinkel encouraged all DeKalb citizens to vote no, and to visit dekalbcitizens.org for more information.