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DeKalb voters may get to weigh in on another attempt to reshape ethics oversight in county government. New legislation crafted by state Rep. Viola Davis and her counterparts in DeKalb’s House delegation would fix the problematic appointment process for the county’s ethics board. It would also keep the current county ethics officer position, while creating a new administrative position that supporters say would add balance when adjudicating complaints against county employees and officials.

 
Map of DeKalb County

DeKalb County, GA – The DeKalb Citizens for Advocacy Council (DCAC), a volunteer group pushing for transparency in county government, hopes to keep the beleaguered DeKalb County Board of Ethics from becoming a secondary victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group recently released the results of a survey sent to candidates for all DeKalb state House and Senate seats measuring their support for new legislation to fix the board’s appointment process.

“If or when the legislators return either this month or next, their focus must be on the budgeting process, and ethics will most likely not be on their agenda,” Mary Hinkel, chair of DeKalb Citizens told Decaturish in an email. “Nevertheless, the citizens of DeKalb County, who are responsible for developing and passing the 2015 Ethics Act and who wisely refused to weaken the act with the November referendum, must continue to make sure the issue of the nonfunctioning Board of Ethics remains a priority for the delegation.”

DeKalb County has not had a functioning Board of Ethics since 2018 when the state Supreme Court ruled its appointment process unconstitutional.

Last year, District 10 state Sen. Emanuel Jones filed a bill in the Georgia Legislature to fix the appointment process, but later revisions to the bill led some members of the delegation to oppose it. The measure was passed by the Legislature but ultimately rejected by DeKalb voters in a November referendum, leaving the board in limbo.

January 2, 2020
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DeKalb vote on ethics referendum by House district. Note: * denotes district with portion outside DeKalb

My Twitter colleague Eli Spencer Heyman (follow @Elium2) loves data, maps, and politics. He’s broken down results from November’s DeKalb ethics referendum by House district (see maps). Here’s what jumps out from his work: While DeKalb voters rejected the controversial proposal by a whopping 61-39 percent margin, several legislators were completely out of sync with their constituents on the issue. Eleven of DeKalb’s House districts voted in resounding fashion against the controversial referendum that would, among other things, eliminate the county’s ethics officer. However, only six DeKalb representatives opposed the bill that set up the measure. During the General Assembly session, only one Senator opposed the bill.

Legislation was necessary to reform the Ethics Board because it had been rendered inoperative following a state Supreme Court decision striking down its appointment process. SB7, as first proposed by Sen. Emanuel Jones, was designed as a simple fix to a legal flaw in board’s appointment process. However, after this “clean fix” passed the Senate, things got complicated in the House. The bill was rewritten to weaken the board’s staffing and authority in several ways. (Read background story.)

Because it was local legislation, most legislators outside DeKalb simply deferred to the local delegation’s contentious 7-6 approval of the bill. When the changed version went back to the Senate for approval, Sen. Sally Harrell (SD40) cast the only vote against it.

In the House, DeKalb Reps. Mike Wilensky (HD79), Matthew Willson (HD80), Scott Holdcomb (HD81), Mary Margaret Oliver (HD82), Becky Evans (HD83), and Michele Henson (HD86) voted “No” on Senate Bill 7. Voters in the six legislators’ districts followed suit.