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As you have probably heard by now, revisions to the county’s Ethics Act were passed by the General Assembly and voters will have a chance to approve or disapprove of them in November.

Considering last year’s problematic revisions and those suggested by some legislators this year before the General Assembly’s recess due to the pandemic, we are relieved by the legislation that was passed. The many revisions which threatened the independence of the Board of Ethics and would have dramatically weakened its authority, policies and procedures were not included in the final bill.

In addition to actively working to encourage voters to pass the Ethics Act revision bill in November, we will be monitoring how the House and Senate delegations fulfill their appointment responsibilities. It is important that they make a public call for nominations and use a vetting process resulting in a board of diverse, qualified, and independent citizens from throughout the county.

Board Appointments

3 members will be appointed by the House legislative delegation
3 members will be appointed by the Senate legislative delegation
1 member will be appointed by the Tax Commissioner
2 Alternate Members will be appointed by the Clerk of Superior Court

You may be wondering why judges were not included in the appointment process.  It turns out that a 1995 opinion issued by the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) stated that judges should not  make appointments to or serve on Board of Ethics due to possible future conflicts if any of these matters were to result in litigation.  Ed Williams of Concerned Citizens for Effective Government uncovered this opinion (Opinion 222) and brought it to our attention.

Ethics Administrator

To respond to the unsubstantiated “judge-jury-executioner” criticism of how the Ethics Officer handled and investigated complaints, a new position was added to the staff of the ethics office.  An Ethics Administrator will receive and review complaints, notify the subjects of complaints that a complaint has been filed, and report the complaints to the Board for decision-making about further investigation by the Ethics Officer. The Ethics Administrator will be selected by the Board of Ethics and serve at the pleasure of the Board.  The Ethics Officer, at the direction of the Board, will continue to do preliminary investigations to determine jurisdiction and probable cause, in addition to pursuing previously mandated duties, including educating and training county employees and officials, advising officials and employees regarding disclosure statements, urging compliance with the code of ethics, and monitoring and acting upon information obtained from the “ethics hotline.”

Addition to Proscribed Conduct re Receipt of Gifts

The legislators added a new subsection that states no employee of the Purchasing and Contracting Department shall accept any gift of value from anyone who has had or may be anticipated to have any business with or before the department.  This was already in effect, but it will now be added to the code.

Recusal

An addition was made to the section dealing with Disclosure of Interests in which officials or employees with a potential conflict of interest in a matter shall recuse themselves from participating or taking any official acts or actions in any manner of the county affected by that individual’s conflict of interest. This, too, has been policy, but will now be in the code.

DeKalb-Ethics Board Issue Highlights Importance of Voter Education

For Immediate Release

Pending Ethics Cases Need To Be Resolved

[DeKalb County, GA]—While the DeKalb County Legislative Delegation has yet to provide a legislative remedy to seating the Board of Ethics, citizens who have filed ethics cases and those who stand accused remain in limbo.

“As CEO Michael Thurmond stated after the November election, the current situation that leaves us without a seated Board of Ethics is untenable,” states DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Chair Mary Hinkel. “Without a full board to hear the cases, both sides are in difficult positions. Those who stand accused cannot receive vindication; those who have lodged complaints are potential targets of retaliation.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act Request, DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council (DeKalb Citizens) recently received information on pending ethics cases in the county. While the ethics office is able to review the submittals and contact the parties involved for additional facts, these cases can only be acted on by the Ethics Board.

Pending cases include violations of the county’s commitment to an harassment free workplace, allegations that the county is allowing unlicensed individuals to do work that is mandated to be done by licensed professionals, and complaints that the county has violated open meetings laws.

“We believe these are serious allegations that deserve to be heard,” states Hinkel. “We urge our legislators to think of those employees and citizens who risked their careers and livelihoods to file these complaints. What will happen to them if action is not taken quickly to seat an ethics board?”

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that all members of the ethics board must be appointed by elected officials. DeKalb Citizens believes it is in the best interest of the county’s residents and businesses if those appointments are made by elected officials not under the purview of the ethics board.

DeKalb Citizens is calling on the delegation to move with all deliberate speed to pass a bill that will seat the ethics board, allowing the board to promptly resolve these and other pending cases.

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For more information, visit dekalbcitizens.org/about-us.

The DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council (DeKalb Citizens) is registered as a nonprofit corporation in the state of Georgia and has filed an application for recognition of exemption under IRS Section 501(c)4. DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council is a group of community members from throughout DeKalb County, Georgia, that formed a ballot committee to defeat the revised ethics act, which was on the ballot for the November 5, 2019 general election. DeKalb Citizens’ mission is to educate the citizens of DeKalb County about county governance issues and to advocate for informed citizen engagement. The organization’s members research topics, including filing open records requests and seeking out best practices from other jurisdictions. The goal is for DeKalb County to model excellence in citizen engagement and county responsiveness to citizen concerns.

www.dekalbcitizens.org

Media Contact:

Mary Hinkel                                    Martha Pacini
maryhinkel@comcast.net                      marthapacini@gmail.com
(404) 312-8646                                           (404) 285-7042

 Before sending the email below, please review these instructions first: 

1. Always add your name and street address; legislators want to know you really are in their district. 

2. If you decide to email all the DeKalb legislators and not just your own, it’s important to email each one separately; we have been advised that emails written to several legislators don’t get the same attention as one sent separately. 

3. If you email more than your legislator, it’s important to say who your legislator is and why you are writing to someone who isn’t yours. (Ex: “We need all of the legislators to work together as a team to get this work done.”) 

Model Email message to legislators and commissioners: 

While DeKalb voters successfully defeated the Ethics Referendum in November, it will take a concerted effort on the part of citizens and elected officials to get the Ethics Board back up and running as soon as possible. I support the expectations expressed by the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council: 

1. Legislators should focus on the simple fix: just fix the board appointment process to satisfy stated court requirements. Going beyond this will likely delay success in this effort. 

2. Fix the appointment process NOW so the new board can be seated. 

3. Legislators should engage in a transparent process to produce the proper legislation. 

4. If a task force is formed to produce another bill dealing with reforming the Ethics Act further, a representative from the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council should serve on the task force.