Editorial: I am voting ‘no’ on the DeKalb ethics referendum and so should you
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While municipal elections will be top of mind for most county voters on Nov. 5, all county voters will have something important on their ballot.
The lone item on the ballot for unincorporated county voters is titled “DeKalb County Board of Ethics Referendum,” also known as Senate Bill 7. It asks a simple question.
“Shall the Act be approved which revises the Board of Ethics for DeKalb County?”
The only appropriate answer to this question, in my opinion, is “no.” Because while this question sounds like a no brainer, it’s a bait and switch by our Legislative delegation. Senate Bill 7 isn’t what it appears to be. This is a bad bill and it shouldn’t have been passed.
Why is this bill bad? Because it de-fangs the Ethics Board.
The intent of the bill was to change the appointment process of the board to make it compliant with the state Constitution.
In November 2015, voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to appoint seven members to an ethics committee and reform the county’s Ethics Board. Former commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton filed a lawsuit to stop private groups, such as Leadership DeKalb, from appointing members to the ethics committee. A judge agreed with her and the decision was upheld in Georgia Supreme Court in August 2018.
The logical fix here would be for these private groups to make recommendations to the County Commission and ask the commission to vote to approve those appointments.
That’s not what our Legislative delegation did. Instead, they put forth a bill that gutted the Ethics Board and will make our local officials less accountable.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a pretty thorough run down of the changes and what they will mean.
Appointments will now be made by the Legislative delegation, the Probate Court judge, the chief Superior Court Judge, the DeKalb CEO and the commissioners. If the referendum is approved, the Ethics Officer would be removed and an Ethics Administrator would be put in place. The Ethics Administrator wouldn’t be able to start investigations and as the AJC puts it would be “more clerical in nature.” Employees who think they see a potential ethics issue must go to Human Resources first, which would deter whistle blowers. If voters approve this referendum, the county CEO would be able “to review the policies and procedures of the ethics board” and the county commissioners would be able to approve those rules, creating an inherent conflict of interest.
It’s clear that this proposal will make our Ethics Board weaker and provide less oversight over our county officials. That is not what DeKalb County needs right now and it’s not what voters overwhelmingly approved in 2015.
Do not be fooled by this referendum. If voters approve this, it would make our government less accountable to the public. Let’s send our Legislative delegation a clear message that they need to work harder to come up with a proposal that honors the intent of what the county voters approved in 2015. Vote “no” on Senate Bill 7.