DeKalb Voters Asked To Weigh In On Revamped Rules For Appointing Ethics Board

Voters in DeKalb County will go to the polls Nov. 5 to give an up-or-down vote on a referendum over the county's Board of Ethics.
Voters in DeKalb County will go to the polls Nov. 5 to give an up-or-down vote on a referendum over the county's Board of Ethics.
Credit Emil Moffatt / WABE

Voters in DeKalb are set to decide next week how much control the people who run the county have over its Board of Ethics.

How that board is chosen — and what it does —  has become controversial as the county tries to revive the oversight body.

The referendum simply asks “Shall the act be approved which revises the board of ethics for DeKalb County?”

Just four years ago, the overwhelming majority of DeKalb County voters approved a new way the county’s Board of Ethics was chosen. Members would be selected by groups like the chamber of commerce, the bar association and representatives from local colleges and universities.

But then, the Georgia Supreme Court said that method was unconstitutional.

So earlier this year, state legislators rewrote how the board is chosen. Senate Bill 7 calls for the majority of the ethics board to be chosen by DeKalb’s state senators and state representatives.

Local courts would get two appointments.

And the final member would be nominated by the county CEO and approved by the board of commissioners.

“We think that’s an inherent conflict of interest since the CEO’s ethical conduct is looked at by this board,” said Mary Hinkel, who leads the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council.

Her group is calling for a “no” vote on the referendum. She argues only a small change was needed to comply with the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision

“Instead…the delegation members who are on the subcommittee for this took the opportunity to add all of these changes,” Hinkel said.

Changes that mean county employees must first go to human resources with complaints, not directly to the ethics board itself.

The changes also mean former employees are no longer subject to ethics investigations, and there wouldn’t be an ethics “officer,” only an “administrator.” Some say that waters down the position.

DeKalb County’s chapter of the NAACP, disagrees.  It encourages a “yes” vote on the referendum.

Chapter president Teresa Hardy said the real power lies with the seven-member board, not the administrator.

“We as citizens of DeKalb are looking for a board of ethics. We’re not looking for a person, an individual,” Hardy said.

Hardy also dismisses concerns about DeKalb’s CEO and commissioners getting to choose a member of the board.

“It’s only one vote,” Hardy said. “It’s six other people. So it’s only one vote”

As the legal fight has raged over how the DeKalb ethics board is chosen, the body has gone dormant, leaving DeKalb County with no ethics oversight.

Now it’s up to voters to decide whether the current referendum is the way to bring it back.