Members of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics listen to testimony during a hearing on May 17, 2018. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

Opinion: DeKalb ethics board has done good work

I have been a resident of Dekalb County for over 25 years and have experienced both the positive and negative of Dekalb County governance. Most of the negativity was attributed to the lack of oversight of the activities of some of the county’s elected and non-elected public officials.

Before 2015, the check on Dekalb government was performed by an Ethics Board that was selected by the Dekalb County commissioners (4 seats) and the county CEO (3 seats), which inherently created a conflict of interest.

In 2015 the State Legislature passed a bill (HB 597) that established an Ethics board that essentially put the appointment process in the public’s hands. Appointments would be made by four separate local civic groups of non-elected officials, and three appointments by elected officials of which the Board of Commissioners had no jurisdiction over, thus creating an atmosphere of transparency and no conflicts of interests.

A referendum of the bill was presented to the voters of Dekalb and they voted overwhelmingly (92 percent) to implement the establishment of the Ethics board and its appointment process. Unfortunately, as noble as this legislation was, apparently it was void of state Constitutional review for compliance, both by the writers and voters of the legislation.

I have been a member of this board from its inception and now serve as its chairman. In late August, the State Supreme court ruled that the appointment process, allowing non-elected officials to appoint Ethics board members, was unconstitutional. While we are disappointed and somewhat confused, we are proud of the work this board has done over the last two years.

Recently, we have been vilified by those involved in litigation brought against them by our board. I want to set the record straight. Back in 2015 and early 2016, ethics complaints were brought forward against former Dekalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton. The Ethics office and the board performed their due diligence and concluded that these complaints had merit and wanted to proceed with a hearing. Ms. Barnes Sutton chose to litigate in court by challenging the legislation. Her representatives assert that the board has wasted taxpayer money, when the board has only defended the legislation on behalf of the Dekalb voters who voted for the current composition of the board.

Needless to say, this litigation is the genesis of the expenditure of the taxpayer money about which Barnes Sutton’s representatives complained. Instead of presenting her case before the Ethics board, Barnes Sutton chose to go to court, which is her right. However, we as a board on behalf of the taxpayers and voters of Dekalb County have an equal right to defend the integrity of the Ethics office they voted to have in place.

Let me take a moment to highlight the work our Ethics office has been doing for the benefit of Dekalb to promote good governance:

1.) We have educated and trained 5,000 employees and public officials on the requirements of the Ethics Code.

2.) Manages a county ethics hotline.

3.) Advised employees and officials on compliance with the Ethics law.

4.) Serves as advisers to employees who might otherwise have been fearful to bring issues forward.

Interestingly, the board has dismissed more complaints than we have litigated. Our focus has been primarily on serious allegations. We have been praised for the work we have been doing on behalf of the county employees.

The current allegations leveled against our board are totally uncalled for and deceiving. The Supreme Court decision only addressed the private appointment process, not the conduct or functioning of the Ethics Office, which is separately addressed in the legislation.

Dekalb needs an Ethics office and board, because it works. The citizens have spoken that this is what they want. Legislators in Dekalb need to honor the will of the voters and provide a fix comparable to what we have now. A process that lends itself to transparency, independence, and complies with the State Constitution.

Robert Tatum is chairman, Dekalb County Ethics Board.