This November, DeKalb County voters will head to the polls to vote on revisions to an Ethics Act passed in 2015 by 92% of voters. The ballot will have no explanation of the revisions, and voters should not be fooled. This legislation does not revise the Board of Ethics. It guts it.
How? By undermining the board’s independence, putting up roadblocks for reporting ethics concerns, and compromising the professionalism and efficiency of the board and staff.
There are three key issues with the ethics bill: First, there is the matter of independence. The bill undermines the independence of the ethics board by giving the DeKalb County CEO and Commission review and approval of the ethics board’s policies and procedures. No other independent board is required to compromise its integrity by having those under the purview of the board involved in its governance. In addition, the CEO will now appoint one of the members of the ethics board.
Second, the revisions create roadblocks for reporting ethics violations. The bill requires employees to go through Human Resources before filing an ethics complaint against a supervisor, rather than reporting their concerns directly to the ethics board. Flying in the face of whistleblower protections, this requirement puts the decision of whether or not something is an ethics violation into the hands of a department that is unqualified to make that decision. This requirement will doubtless have a chilling effect on employees reporting ethics violations.
Third, the legislation promotes a lack of professionalism in the staff supporting the ethics board. The revisions downgrade the ethics officer position to that of an “administrator” with no requirement for work experience or legal or ethics training. It is considered standard for an ethics officer to have a law degree, but not so for an administrator. This legislation calls for a significantly less-skilled individual, who will be unqualified to provide ethics education to employees (one of the officer’s primary functions), to provide advisory opinions to officials and employees seeking advice on ethical matters, or to investigate complaints. In addition, the ethics administrator does not have the legal responsibility to report criminal activity to law enforcement. By lowering the educational standards and diminishing the role of the ethics officer, these revisions make an implicit statement that ethics is less important than previously determined.
Don’t just take our word for this. DeKalb County resident Dr. Paul Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics and an internationally recognized ethics expert, reviewed the legislation this summer. Dr. Wolpe’s conclusion? “The bottom line is that this bill is clearly meant to weaken and dilute the excellent policy passed in 2015, without any convincing reasons to weaken the bill. DeKalb is slipping back to a former posture that got it in trouble in the first place. I would agree that this bill should be strongly opposed.”
While we are respectful of the opinion that the proposed revisions are the result of hard work and compromise on the part of some DeKalb County’s state legislators, we believe they missed the point in their deliberations: DeKalb citizens want a strong, effective and independent ethics board and staff that is not subject to review, approval or interference by the very individuals who are subject to the Code of Ethics.
Why should DeKalb voters care about this issue? The ethics board has been working professionally and efficiently to root out DeKalb’s worst offenders and corrupt practices and to help create a culture of strong ethics among DeKalb employees and elected officials.