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DeKalb Ethics Board seeks legislation to retain oversight power

DeKalb County Board of Ethics members came up with a plan Thursday that they hope will keep the panel operating even if a lawsuit seeking to have it declared unconstitutional is successful.

lawsuit filed by former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who has three pending ethics cases, alleges that the board is unconstitutional because some of its members are appointed by private organizations. Her case relies on a 1979 Georgia Supreme Court decision that said elected officials can’t delegate their appointment power to non-government groups.

The Georgia General Assembly overhauled the DeKalb Board of Ethics in 2015 to make it more independent, removing appointment power from the county’s commissioners and CEO.

The board voted unanimously to pursue legislation that members hope will allow it to continue overseeing government behavior, regardless of the outcome of the court case.

The proposed bill would make the private organizations’ nominations to the board subject to confirmation from the county’s state legislators. The board doesn’t have jurisdiction over state representatives and senators.

Four of the the board’s members are currently chosen by unelected groups: the DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Leadership DeKalb and the county’s colleges and universities. The remaining three members are selected by elected officials: the chief judge of DeKalb Superior Court, the Probate Court judge and the county’s state legislators.

The measure would be passed only if the judge rules against the DeKalb Board of Ethics or doesn’t issue a decision before the end of this year’s legislative session, said DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman.

Despite any legislation, if Sutton is successful in court, the board probably wouldn’t be able to function until voters approve those changes, Kalberman said.

“I would still rather the board remain as independent as possible,” she said during Thursday’s board meeting. “I’d rather not see this put in place unless it has to be.”

DeKalb Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson has scheduled a Feb. 21 hearing on Sutton’s lawsuit, and she could decide the case then or afterward.

In response to Sutton’s lawsuit, a different judge issued a stay in November 2015 that prevented the DeKalb Board of Ethics from moving forward with the complaints against her.

She’s accused of accepting gifts from a YMCA, abusing her county purchasing card, using government employees at a political fundraising event and other alleged violations. She has denied wrongdoing.

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