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Legislation that could revive the DeKalb County Board of Ethics achieved final passage in the Georgia Legislature on Friday, clearing the way for a second ethics-related ballot referendum in as many years.

The new bill, crafted by state Rep. Viola Davis and members of DeKalb’s House delegation, would fix the appointment process for the county’s ethics board, because the current guidelines were ruled unconstitutional almost two years ago. It would also keep the current county ethics officer position, while creating a new administrative position that supporters say would add balance when investigating complaints against county employees and officials.

The controversial ethics legislation lawmakers passed last year was struck down by voters in November. Davis’ bill, however, includes the extra oversight that some have pushed for while removing components that voters found unacceptable in 2019. It gained support from members of DeKalb’s House and Senate delegations, as well as the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council, which spearheaded the opposition to last year’s failed proposal.

On the final day of the Georgia legislative session June 26, lawmakers passed a new proposal to the DeKalb County ethics laws, one hopeful for voter approval in November.

The ethics board has been dormant and unable to make recommendations on complaints received since August 2018 when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the board was unconstitutional due to its members being appointed by non-elected entities.

During the November 2019 election, 61 percent of DeKalb voters turned down a proposed ethics reform bill, Senate Bill 7, which would have allowed the ethics board to consist of two members appointed by the county’s House delegation; two members appointed by the county’s Senate delegation; one member appointed by the county CEO with majority confirmation of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners; one appointment by the chief superior court judge; and one by the probate court judge. SB 7 also attempted to replace the ethics officer with an ethics administrator who has fewer duties and would have required county employees to first file complaints through the county’s human resources department for remedy.

Several versions of an ethics reform bill were heard during this year’s legislative session, following DeKalb citizens speaking at public meetings in favor of a ‘simple fix’ to the ethics code, only changing the appointment process of the ethics board.

The legislation cleared the House on Thursday morning. There’s some language to be smoothed out, but Sen. Emanuel Jones, leader of DeKalb’s Senate delegation, said no significant issues are expected in that chamber.

If the bill gains final passage, the revised ethics law would be put up for a public vote in November — just a year after voters shot down a similar referendum.

But Davis and other legislators say the changes proposed in House Bill 1243 include the extra oversight that some have pushed for while removing components that voters found unpalatable in 2019.

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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.

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

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.

 

 

 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.