The future form of the Dekalb County Board of Ethics and its ability to hear cases is tied up in legislation and a lawsuit involving former county commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton.
Legislation in both the House and Senate is taking a look at how members are appointed to the board in light of Barnes-Sutton’s lawsuit, which alleges it is unconstitutional to have board members chosen by private organizations.
Almost 92 percent of DeKalb voters approved the revised ethics board in November of 2015. The revision took the power to appoint members away from the CEO and commissioners and put it in the hands of a group of seven independent entities — one for each board member.
Of the seven total board members, four are appointed by private organizations: the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb Bar Association, Leadership DeKalb and a group of local universities and colleges.
Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, has introduced two pieces of legislation to the DeKalb Policy Committee on the House of Representatives side addressing changes to the ethics board.
While the first piece addresses the county’s ethics code itself, in areas such as imposing stricter gift limitations and an anti-nepotism provision, the second was designed to clarify appointment of board members in light of the ongoing lawsuit.
The second piece of legislation would change the appointment process so that the four private organizations would nominate their candidate and pass on the final decision to the legislative delegation of DeKalb. Currently, the organizations are able to both nominate and select the final candidate.
However, both pieces of legislation were stalled in the committee, Holcomb said.
Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, Rep. Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain, and Rep. Coach Williams, D-Avondale Estates voted against the bill to address membership appointments.
Holcomb along with Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, and Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates voted for the legislation. Committee chairwoman, Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Lithonia, opted not to cast a tie-breaking vote.
“I am surprised by the opposition to this,” Holcomb said. “Vernon Jones has taken a position of letting the judges figure this out, but that is not our role. The judge’s role is to interpret the law, and our job is to set the policy.”
Holcomb said there is an added drive to figure the matter out before the 40-day legislative wraps up.
“DeKalb has made a lot of progress on ethics and we want to keep moving forward and not back,” he said.
DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman said Jones was leading the charge in preventing the legislation from making it through committee, keeping the board from getting back to doing its job.
She said Jones’ personal relationship with Barnes-Sutton, who has an ethics complaint filed against her, may be motivating his actions.
“I cannot imagine why else he would,” she said.
Anticipating problems even before his bills were stalled in committee, Holcomb said he encouraged similar legislation also be filed in the senate.
Holcomb’s legislation, both addressing appointments and gift policies, have been combined into a similar measure with Senate Bill 273.
He said this bill, which would also give state lawmakers a final say in candidates chosen by the four private organizations, is expected to pass through the Senate and then over to the House. From there, Holcomb said he is optimistic the votes will be there to pass it.
Jones has also proposed his own legislation that would entirely undo the reforms made to the ethics board by returning appointment of members to the county CEO and board of commissioners.
According to a statement from the board of commissioners, missing only the signatures of Commissioner Larry Johnson and Mereda Davis Johnson, passing this legislation would take DeKalb backwards and ignore constituents who approved the reforms.
“The citizens of DeKalb County voted for this change to ensure that their government could be run in an ethical and transparent manner and to ensure that officials and employees were putting the interests of DeKalb above their own personal interests,” the statement said.
According to Holcomb, Vernon has refused to share a copy of his legislation. Kalberman said, to her knowledge, no one has seen the actual bill.
Jones could not be immediately reached for comment.
In spite of cases being tied up in legal red-tape, Kalberman said the first full year of the revised board was a productive one.
“We have accomplished an amazing amount in a year,” she said. “While we cannot hear many cases because of the lawsuit, we have gotten a strong education program running and become a strong resource for people in the county to ask questions.”
In 2016, the board’s work included investigating 15 complaints, educated more than 2,000 county employees and creating a new, independant website, according to Kalberman’s annual report, dated Feb. 7, 2017.
Her report also states that many of the problems plaguing DeKalb’s ethical health have been the result of a few individuals whose “loyalties were aligned with their own personal interest.”
“While I cannot say the ethical health of DeKalb County is strong, I am certain that the work to bring systemic, positive change is well under way and I believe that the future holds a different grade in ethics for DeKalb,” Kalberman concluded in the report.