DeKalb County Courthouse /Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A ballot referendum to restructure the DeKalb County Ethics Board failed to pass, with about 39 percent of the vote in favor of the proposal. The referendum proposed the establishment of a new ethics board for DeKalb County and replaced the position of ethics officer with an “ethics administrator.” DeKalb County legislators can vote on a new bill in the 2020 legislative session to address the ethics board, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reported. 

Residents of DeKalb County in 2015 voted to make the ethics board more independent and to allow outside groups to appoint a majority of the board members, according to the AJC. The ethics board had not been functional since a 2018 Georgia Supreme Court ruling mandated that a majority of the ethics board members must be appointed by public officials.

Under the new bill, a seven-member ethics board would have been selected by DeKalb County legislative delegations in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate, the chief executive of the county, the Probate Court of DeKalb County, and the chief judge of the Superior Court of DeKalb County.

The bill would have also removed the position of an ethics officer and establishes the role of ethics administrator. It also would have allowed the board to hire an attorney to investigate ethics complaints and changes the previous system for processing ethics complaints by requiring that complaints are filed with human resources prior to informing the ethics administrator.

“A county employee, prior to communicating to the ethics administrator a complaint regarding his or her immediate supervisor, shall exhaust all administrative remedies available under the county’s applicable human resources policies and procedures,” reads Section 3 Clause 2 of the Senate bill.

In a July 25 letter, Director of the Emory Center for Ethics Paul Wolpe said that the bill would weaken the structure of 2015 ethics board and lacks compelling reasonings for the proposed restructure. Wolpe reviewed the proposed legislation after receiving a request from the DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council. He also criticized the requirement that a county employee file complaints with human resources prior to informing the ethics administrator.

“The Chair or the Ethics Officer should be the gatekeeper, not HR,” reads Wolpe’s letter. “HR has the ability to delay or subvert an ethics complaint with processes and procedures that could delay an employee’s right to go the ethics committee indefinitely, which is not acceptable.”

The DeKalb County chapter of the NAACP publicly endorsed the Senate bill, according to the AJC, saying that voting against the bill would leave the county without any form of an ethics board.

“We don’t currently have [an ethics board] because the board created in 2015 was ruled unconstitutional,” Teresa Hardy, president of the DeKalb NAACP, told the Wheel. “Now we have a bill that is constitutional. So yes, we do support [the Senate bill].”

Hardy added that the DeKalb NAACP supported the movement for a seven-member board to make decisions on issues of ethics, for the board to hire outside attorneys and for officers to investigate complaints.