You might go to the polls and see a ballot item asking, “Aren’t puppies cute?”

You click “Yes,” and next thing you know, some senator’s brother-in-law is getting a no-bid contract to sell food to dog pounds across Middle Georgia.

DeKalb County voters next month will face a seemingly innocuous question: “Shall the Act be approved which revises the Board of Ethics for DeKalb County?”

Hmm. I can almost see voters’ thought processes while trying to decide that question: “Ethics are good, right? And almost a quorum of the former County Commission has been indicted. So I suppose I’ll vote yes!”

However, if it read: “Shall the Act be rewritten to weaken the Ethics Board and stick it to an ethics officer who has overstepped her bounds?”

Well, then voters might not be so enthused.

  

Georgia Sen. Emanuel Jones’ office announced this week the cancellation of two remaining town hall meetings intended to educate DeKalb County voters on the ethics referendum provision on the ballot.

Several lawmakers responded first with dismay about Jones’ decision, and later with defiance.

The meetings will go on, several legislators told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, because they made promises to answer questions about the controversial proposal ahead of Election Day in November.

“We’ve made a commitment to constituents to be accessible over the next month, and I fully intend to fulfill that promise,” Rep. Matt Wilson, D-Brookhaven, said.

  

Lawmakers on Monday held the first of four town hall meetings to discuss the contents of the ethics bill, which requires voters’ approval in order to become law. That referendum will be on the ballot countywide in November, and delegation members say misinformation is clouding the debate.

“It’s just not true to say that this bill is weak on ethics,” Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur, said. “And we would not have voted for it if it was weak on ethics.”

 

Tuesday was one of those days that cause good government boosters in DeKalb County to bite their knuckles in dismay.

First, former Commissioner Sharon “Walking Indictment” Barnes Sutton was finally acquainted with the back seat of a law enforcement vehicle for allegedly shaking down county contractors.

Later that day, the feds announced the county will have to repay $750,000 for almost certainly misappropriating federal job training funds.

This should have been a gimme, a simple legislative fix to put the DeKalb County Board of Ethics back in business.

But, no, this is DeKalb, where political fiefdoms flourish, personal feuds fester, racial resentments seethe and ethics enforcement suffers.

Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that DeKalb’s ethics board was unconstitutional because its members were selected by private organizations — such as the chamber of commerce or the bar association — rather than by elected officials. This was a board created in 2015 by 92 percent of county voters tired of the words “DeKalb” and “sleazy” being uttered in the same sentence.

State legislators have for a couple of years tried to remedy the flaw in the ethics board. But there have been those in the Legislature who seem to make passing ethics laws more difficult. Notable among them is Vernon Jones, the former county CEO and renowned incendiary, who in 2017 helped scuttle a fix, thereby leaving the board largely inoperable for months.

  

Digging deep

Over the past year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigations of DeKalb County corruption have helped to trigger an FBI probe, changes in county policy, additional funding for the county ethics board and other reform efforts. Reporter Johnny Edwards first revealed last March that then-Commissioner Elaine Boyer had paid for personal expenses with her county Visa card. After his story was published, a federal investigation began, and Edwards, working with Channel 2 Action News reporter Jodie Fleischer and DeKalb County reporter Mark Niesse, continued to scrutinize questionable spending by DeKalb officials. That work found evidence that Boyer was involved in a kickback scheme with an evangelist who supposedly gave her policy advice. Other stories also detailed misspending by other DeKalb officials and lax policies that left the county vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse. On Wednesday, former state Attorney General Mike Bowers began a sweeping investigation into corruption in the county.

  

Former DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson pleaded guilty Wednesday to receiving about $3,000 in advances for government trips and using the money for personal purposes.

Watson, who repaid the money before he was charged with crime, was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 150 hours of community service for a misdemeanor count of theft by conversion.

Watson, 63, withdrew advance checks early last year for conferences in Chicago and Savannah, but then he resigned from office in March 2016 before those trips took place.

County policy requires that unused travel funds must be repaid immediately, but he didn’t complete his reimbursing the government until nearly a year after the trips, according to District Attorney Sherry Boston’s Office.