DeKalb voters went to the polls in November 2015 to vote on a referendum that included a new method for appointing members to a seven (7) member Board of Ethics. The Ethics Act, passed by 92% of the voters, was based on extensive research by a citizen group and the 2014 Operations Task Force appointed by then Interim CEO Lee May.
Immediately following the passage of the bill, lawyers for then Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton filed a lawsuit contending that the law was unconstitutional because unelected officials were making appointments to the Board of Ethics. The Georgia Supreme Court in August 2018 upheld the lower court ruling against the DeKalb Board of Ethics appointment process.
Senate Bill 7 (SB7) was introduced in January 2019 to fix the appointment process by identifying elected officials who may appoint members to the Board of Ethics. Since the bill includes an appointment by the CEO/BOC, a referendum is required.
What should have been a simple fix, however, has become more complex and SB7 changes more than just the appointment process. The revised law guts the Board of Ethics, destroying the board’s effectiveness, public credibility and independence.
These major changes gut the Board’s credibility and threaten its independence:
The independence of the Board of Ethics is challenged by a new provision that requires the Board’s policies and procedures be approved by the CEO and confirmed by the BOC, creating a potential conflict of interest.
Neither the Board of Zoning Appeals nor the Planning Board must submit their rules and procedures to the Governing Authority for approval. This provision violates the independence of the Board of Ethics, and creates an opportunity for mischief by allowing the CEO/BOC to establish policies and procedures governing the Board of Ethics.
The revised law replaces the Ethics Officer with an Ethics Administrator, thus implicitly stating ethics is less important than voters had previously determined.
Currently the ethics officer must have a law degree and five (5) years experience. An ethics administrator may have only a bachelor’s degree and no ethics experience. The administrator cannot bring forth an investigation nor report criminal activity to law enforcement. And, there is no penalty for lying to the administrator. As outlined above, the non-lawyer ethics administrator will not be qualified to train county employees, nor provide advisory opinions when county staff or officials call with an ethics question.
The revisions will require employees to first go through the Human Resources Department and the merit system before filing an ethics complaint against a supervisor.
Employees and most citizens believe that bureaucracies have a tendency to protect senior management. Requiring employees to first go through HR, which is not perceived as independent, will chill potential employee complaints. Further, the ethics administrator is required to report all employee complaints to the HR director. Again, this provision will discourage employees from bringing forth ethics complaints.
Many of the duties of the Ethics Officer would be assigned to the volunteer members of the Board of Ethics or to outside attorneys.
The Board of Ethics members, who are not required to have legal training, are all volunteers with limited time to devote to determining if a complaint merits consideration by the Board, a duty now handled by the ethics officer. Hiring outside attorneys to function as ethics officers on individual complaints will delay action on these complaints and prove to be inefficient and expensive for the County.