Former DeKalb Commissioner Sues Chief Ethics Officer

Former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton has challenged the constitutionality of the county ethic board.
Former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton has challenged the constitutionality of the county ethic board.
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Former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton is trying to disband the county’s ethics board again as she faces several complaints before that same board.

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Barnes Sutton is suing DeKalb’s chief ethics officer, Stacey Kalberman, alleging she broke the law when she went to the Georgia state capitol to support legislation that would change how ethics board members are appointed.

In 2015, the DeKalb County Board of Ethics scheduled a public hearing on ethics complaints pending against Barnes Sutton over her county spending when she was a commissioner. Federal investigators also have been looking into her expenses.

But before that hearing could take place, Barnes Sutton challenged the constitutionality of the ethics board. Because of that challenge, the hearing was postponed indefinitely while the constitutionality question was resolved.

Barnes Sutton specifically questioned the way members of the board were appointed. Under current law, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, DeKalb Bar Association, Leadership DeKalb, and a group of local universities and colleges nominate and select four of the seven seats on the ethics board.

Earlier this month, state Rep. Scott Holcomb introduced legislation that would allow legislators from DeKalb to vote on appointments to the ethics board based on recommendations from outside groups. The bill would allow the four private organizations to nominate candidates and pass those nominations to legislators who would make the final decision.

While Holcomb and other legislators were writing the bill, they invited Kalberman to the capitol to provide an expert opinion on the bill. But this meeting caused further contention between the board and Barnes-Sutton.

Barnes Sutton claims that Kalberman lobbied for the law to be changed, thus breaking the county ethics law which prohibits ethics officers from involving themselves in partisan or non-partisan political activities or the political affairs of DeKalb County. Barnes Sutton filed a lawsuit against Kalberman and asked for the Ethics Board to be disbanded for its unconstitutionality.

“You can’t be involved in the politics of the thing—the law says the ethics officer can’t do it,” said Dwight Thomas, who is representing Barnes Sutton. “The law doesn’t say the board couldn’t do it, the law doesn’t say the board’s lawyer couldn’t do it.”

But Kalberman’s attorney, Darren Summerville, disagrees. He said she wasn’t dabbling in politics, she was doing her job.

“The very lifeblood of the ethics officer’s job is the functioning of the board of ethics,” he said. “So, I don’t think that’s an improper political statement or participation at all.”

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