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 What to talk about when you’re talking about ethics. 

A conversation guide. 

The situation with the revised ethics act is complex. It is easy to get lost in the nuances, line-by-line details, and politics of the revised act. But the bottom line is this: Vote NO on November 5, 2019. Don’t be fooled by the harmless language that is used for ballot. Remember that 92% of DeKalb voters previously passed a law that set up an INDEPENDENT ethics board. We currently have active ethics laws, an ethics officer, and 3 approved members of a 7-member board. 

Conversation Starter. First, introduce yourself. Then, try these questions to start the conversation: 

  • Did you know that there is a revision to the ethics act on the ballot on November 5? 
  • What do you know about the revision to the ethics act that is on the ballot on November 5? 
  • Do you think it is important for all of our elected and appointed officials, as well as county employees, to abide by a consistent set of ethical guidelines? 

Listen to the answers. If they don’t know about the ethics act, then it is an opportunity to educate them. 

Main Points. Here are the three primary reasons to vote against the ethics act: 

It guts the ethics board’s independence. The bill undermines the independence of the ethics board by giving the DeKalb County CEO and Commission the power to interfere in ethics board governance through policies, procedures and appointments. 

It sets up roadblocks for reporting ethics violations. The bill sets up roadblocks for employees to submit their concerns to the ethics board by forcing them to go through Human Resources. 

It eliminates the professionalism of the ethics office. The bill downgrades the ethics officer position to that of an “administrator” with no requirement for work experience or legal or ethics training. 

Answers to Questions/Concerns. People hear things, and they aren’t always correct. Here are the top three questions you may be asked: 

Why is this on the ballot? The state supreme court threw out the nomination process for the board members, which included four positions appointed by community groups rather than elected officials. This ruling affected not only DeKalb, but all other boards with sanctioning authority that used community groups. That is the only thing that needs to be changed. Those four members who were formerly appointed by community groups should now be appointed by elected officials who are not under the purview of the ethics board, such as a state court judge or the legislative delegation. That is the only thing that needs to change, and that change does not require a referendum. We must have a referendum now because we have changed the duties of the CEO and Commission by involving them in the appointments and the review and approval of processes & procedures. 

But, we won’t have an ethics board unless we vote for this. The DeKalb County delegation simply has to change the appointment process by having those four members previously appointed by the community groups be appointed by the delegation or judges. A simple change to the appointment process does not require a referendum, and the ethics board could be at a quorum in March. Be clear—this revision that is on the ballot is bad enough that we are better off without an ethics board until one without conflicts of interest can be appointed. 

Why are we still paying for an ethics office? The State Supreme Court ruling only affects the appointment process, not the rest of the duties of the ethics function in DeKalb. The office still does training for all county employees, provides advisory opinions, reviews all tips that come in on the hotline, does investigations, etc. Cases being heard by the ethics board is what cannot happen until there is a quorum on the board. 

Embargoed Release Until September 16, 2019 

Ethics Experts Lining Up Against the Fatally Flawed Ethics Act on DeKalb County’s Ballot for November 5, 2019

Ethics experts and other leaders in the county are lining up against the Revised Ethics Act that will be on DeKalb County’s ballot on November 5, 2019. 

Dr. Paul Wolpe, Director of the Emory Center for Ethics, an internationally renowned ethics expert and a DeKalb County citizen, has reviewed the proposed legislation. “The bottom line is that this bill is clearly meant to weaken and dilute the excellent policy passed in 2015, without any convincing reasons to weaken the bill,” Dr. Wolpe concluded. 

Former ethics board members, Susan Nugent, Teri Thompson, Scott Bonder, and Isaac Blythers, as well as Judge Patricia Killingsworth who is a member of DeKalb Citizens, have also reviewed the proposed changes and taken issue with them. 

“By forcing employees to go through Human Resources, this bill will have a chilling effect on county employees’ ability to report wrong-doing when they see it,” stated Judge Killingsworth. “Human Resources could delay an employee’s right to go to the ethics board indefinitely, which is not acceptable.” 

Further, a 2017 study of DeKalb’s Culture by the University of North Georgia’s BB&T Center for Ethical Leadership stated that “Due to below average scores on indicators such as leadership confidence, perceptions of the county’s leadership ability to articulate a clear future and vision, employees understanding of the county’s values, and overall communication we recommend remediation for the county government and its employees.” 

“Voters need to send a clear “no” to the county and legislature regarding this flawed revised ethics act,” stated Mary Hinkel, chair of the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council. “The ballot language sounds good, but what lies beneath it in the actual act is rotten to the core.” 

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

The DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council (DeKalb Citizens) is registered as a nonprofit corporation in the state of Georgia and will be filing shortly 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 has formed a ballot committee to defeat the revised ethics act, which is 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
maryhinkel@comcast.net
(404) 312-8646

For Immediate Release

DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council Forms Ballot Committee to Defeat Revised Ethics Act

 [DeKalb County, GA]—A group of concerned DeKalb community members have formed a ballot committee to educate DeKalb County citizens on the fatal flaws contained in the revised Ethics Act to be voted on in the November 5, 2019 general election. The DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council (DeKalb Citizens) includes residents from throughout DeKalb County who are committed to ethical governance, citizen engagement and transparency in county leadership and operations. 

“No legislation is better than bad legislation,” explains Mary Hinkel, chair of DeKalb Citizens. “The revised ethics act guts the independence of the ethics board, compromises the professionalism and efficiency of the board and staff, and puts up roadblocks for reporting ethics concerns. I encourage every DeKalb County citizen to review the revised act and vote “NO” on November 5.” 

DeKalb Citizens has identified three primary flaws with the proposed ethics act: 

Independence. The bill undermines the independence of the ethics board by giving the DeKalb County CEO and Commission review and approval of ethics boards policies and procedures. In addition, the CEO will now appoint one of the members of the ethics board. No other independent board is required to compromise its integrity by having those under the purview of the board involved in its governance. 

Roadblocks. The bill requires employees to go through Human Resources rather than reporting their concerns to the ethics board. Flying in the face of whistle blower protections, this requirement puts the decision of whether or not something is an ethics violation into the hands of a department that is unqualified to make that decision. In addition, Human Resources could subvert any investigation and delay indefinitely an employee’s ability to go to the ethics board. This requirement will doubtless have a chilling effect on employees reporting ethics violations. 

Lack of professionalism. The bill downgrades the ethics officer position to that of an “administrator” with no requirement for work experience or legal or ethics training. The legislation calls for a significantly less skilled individual, who will be unqualified to provide employee training, offer informal advice for those with questions, or have the responsibility to report criminal activity to law enforcement. It is considered standard for an ethics officer to have a law degree, but not so for an administrator. 

DeKalb Citizens is partnering with multiple groups in DeKalb County, including DeKalb Strong and PRISM (Pride Rings in Stone Mountain), to educate voters throughout the County about the defective nature of the bill. 

For more information, visit our website: www.dekalbcitizens.org

Media Contact:

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

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.

Speak with your NO vote on November 5th to let our elected officials know that we refuse to accept their ill-conceived attempts to gut our Code of Ethics, and that we expect them to promptly approve a bill that simply amends the appointment process for members of the Board of Ethics as required by the Court, not to include appointments by the CEO or Commission members.