After a referendum vote in November 2016, DeKalb County residents approved the revision of the Dekalb County Board of Ethics by 92%, which removed the power of appointment from the CEO, which is now Michael Thurmond, and the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners. Though, what they did not vote on is who would appoint the seven-member Board in their stead. This technicality has been the center of controversy and lawsuit, according to several members of the legislative delegation and the Board of Commissioners.
In the newly revised ethics code, DeKalb Commissioners placed the power of Ethics Board appointment in the hands of a select group of special interest groups. In accordance with [Section 22A, Subsection h-2-b] of the DeKalb Code of Ordinances, “The members of the new board of ethics shall be selected as follows:
(i) One (1) member shall be appointed by the DeKalb Bar Association chosen from the attorney members of the association;
(ii) One (1) member shall be appointed by the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce, which member shall not be an attorney;
(iii) One (1) member shall be appointed by a majority vote of the DeKalb County legislative delegation;
(iv) One (1) member shall be appointed by the judge of the Probate Court of DeKalb County;
(v) One (1) member shall be appointed by Leadership DeKalb;
(vi) One (1) member shall be appointed by the six (6) major universities and colleges located within DeKalb County ; and
(vii) One (1) member shall be appointed by the Chief Judge of the Superior Court of DeKalb County.
Before the referendum vote, outgoing Dekalb Board of Ethics Chairwoman Clara Black Delay opposed the measure, saying that it would allow for the special interest groups to empower their personal agenda. “It seems like it’s more for a political purpose by putting the people we want on the board that will get the results we seek,” she said. “If there’s a witch hunt afoot, they’ll have the right people in place to get the witch.”
The need for ethics reform is ever-present in DeKalb, as several politicians there have been accused of a wide range of ethical violations, including former CEO Burrell Ellis (who’s charges are now vacated), former Commissioner Stan Watson, and former Commissioner Sandra Barnes Sutton.
It was not until a lawsuit brought forth by former Commissioner Sutton against the County, however, that the revision to and composition of the Ethics Board was brought officially into question. According to Rogers v. Medical Association of Georgia, a 1974 decision before the Georgia Supreme Court, “delegation of power of appointment to public office to a private organization is unconstitutional.” As the Court considers the case law of that decision in reference to Ms. Sutton’s case, Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson ordered a stay in the business of the Ethics Board, including the official proceedings of the ethics violation against her.
In direct response to the stay, DeKalb legislators, sponsored by State Representative Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) scrambled to write legislation that seeks clarification on the appointment process. He proposes a change that give the groups listed in the ordinance nominating power, and the legislative delegation would in turn confirm said nomination. With the bill stalled in the DeKalb Policy Committee by way of a 3-3 tie (Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, Rep. Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain, and Rep. Coach Williams, D-Avondale Estates voted in opposition while Rep. Holcomb, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates voted in favor) and Committee Chair Pam Stephenson opting out of a tie-vote, the matter seems endangered to not make it pass the end of the 40-day session of the Georgia General Assembly.
State Representative Vernon Jones has since touted a bill that would return the power of appointment back to the Board of Commissioners and CEO, and give investigative authority to the District Attorney, mirroring the due process of the Georgia Ethics Commission. He hasn’t formally presented the bill in the committee, as he anticipates a decision from Judge Jackson first before any movement on the legislation is considered.
Another issue was brought up before the general public by State Rep. Vernon Jones that causes for pause and grave concern. Included in the County ordinance was that “The ethics officer shall not be involved in partisan or nonpolitical activities or the political affairs of DeKalb County.” [Section 22A-i-2]. Currently the Board Ethics Officer, Stacey Kalberman, has made on the record comments to the press about pending legislation, as well as has been seen in DeKalb Policy Committee hearings by the delegation. It has not been said whether or not an official grievance and complaint will be filed on her, or a recommendation for removal due to political activity contrary to the county ordinance will be considered. This could be considered an infraction on her First Amendment Rights to some, as the county ordinance impedes her ability to express herself as a private citizen in a private capacity. But, until that challenge is made to the ordinance, she is prohibited from participating in any official activity or political expressions in relation to DeKalb County.
Nonetheless, the best solution moving forward could represent a compromise for both sides of the delegation. A compromise could be that the Board of Commissioners recommend appointments to the Board of Ethics with the inclusion of a Ethics Officer acting as the chair of the Board, who would report directly to the Commissioners, and would work in direct conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General to seek prosecution of said violation before a State or Superior Court Judge, whichever would have jurisdiction.
It has yet to be seen whether compromise from either side of the legislative delegation from DeKalb, one of the only delegations made of all Democrats. However, only time will tell what ethics reform will look like for this county and its citizens.