DeKalb Board of Commissioners stiff ethics board

The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners met today to, among other things, give a little extra ammo to the huns of cityhood banging at the castle gates.

DeKalb County has a board of ethics. Go figure. I didn’t know that either until a week or so ago when William Perry at Common Cause issued an increasingly-common what are you doing! notice about the county denying the ethics board’s funding request.

Commissioners ended up giving the board about a quarter of what it asked for — a victory of sorts, since that’s up from a tenth of its relatively paltry $60,000 ask — in a five-to-one vote, with Jeff Rader the lone no vote, apparently in protest.

“The funding that was approved today gets them the resources they need and sets the bar for funding in 2014,” commissioner Lee May said. “We’ve nearly doubled our financial commitment to this cause.”

The DeKalb County board of ethics is uncommonly strong, on paper. The state legislature created it in 1990 after an earlier spate of corruption problems in the county, including the conviction of then-commissioner John Evans on corruption charges. (Evans now leads the DeKalb County NAACP.) Ethics board members can’t be removed by the commission once appointed. They have subpoena power. And they can remove a commissioner from public office on a violation of the county’s ethics rules.

That said … the ethics board has been almost completely dysfunctional for years.

“In 2012, the total annual budget for the DeKalb County Board of Ethics was a meager $16,500,” wrote ethics board member John Ernst, a real estate attorney. “Of that, $12,000 was paid to an attorney who told board members that he worked for the county – not the Board. The Board was also told on numerous occasions that the county would not pay for court reporters to transcribe hearings, depriving the Board of critical documentation in the event Board rulings are appealed to DeKalb Superior Court. Last year, the Board had no staff.”

Fun fact: I’m told the board can’t find minutes from it’s own meetings that are more than a year or so old.

The grand jury report from earlier this year lays the problems bare, calling for widespread internal investigations and a change of the form of government to eliminate the CEO position entirely … and a full-time ethics officer. The grand jury report called the ethics board “inept,” full of “political appointees,” with a website that hadn’t been updated since 2010.

So, the board asked for money for an attorney to do the work without whining, and enough money for investigators — about $60,000 for next year. The need for investigators at this point should be obvious. As the AJC reported, “officials awarded a $2.2 million-a-year tree-trimming contract to a fake company created by a Cartoon Network employee who didn’t so much as own a chain saw.” If we’re not talking about the school board, it’s the sewer folks, or the procurement staff, or, you know, the county CEO himself.

Now, there are plenty of reasons having nothing to do with any of this for folks in Lakeside and Tucker and Stonecrest and Druid Hills and whatnot to be considering a move to incorporate as cities. Many of those reasons aren’t particularly laudable or sensible. Schools, for one, have little enough to do with the county government … for now.

Commissioner Larry Johnson spoke about the move to cityhood at a breakfast meeeting of DeKalb Democrats on Saturday, and said that if any of the proposed cities comes to fruition, it will cast the county budget into deficit. I firmly believe some of the incorporation fight could be averted with some old-fashioned politicking — meeting with community members to negotiate around service provisions and how the county distributes resources. But I’ve been to the meetings, and the second or third thing people talk about is county corruption. Not service delivery, but when the next shoe will drop in court and whether or not the size of the check they write changes the speed with which a phone call is returned.

The commission has to know that. And yet, here we are, watching a hanging fastball float over the middle of the plate. They said no to the $60,000, and approved for about $15000 instead, money to be spent on training. The difference between what the ethics board is asking of the commission and what they’re getting wouldn’t pay the price of a single police cruiser. It’s clear that the advocates of incorporation will watch moves like this and use it to feed the fire. The cost-benefit to the county to take this issue off the table seems apparent to me. The ethics board doesn’t work. Explain how you’re planning to fix it, and then fix it. And for crying out loud, don’t look like you’re cutting it off at the budgetary knees.

But my county commissioner, Sharon Barnes-Sutton, told me flatly that she views the ethics board as a partisan device only used for political purposes to tarnish the reputation of commissioners. “The only time the board addresses a complaint … happens during the campaign season,” she said, adding that none of the issues associated with the CEO emerged from ethics board complaints, and that it’s not accidental. “Those are his friends, many of them on the board, who are protecting him,” specifically naming the chairman, Issac Blythers, among them.

“I just want them to bring me a proper budget with a plan of action, and they can’t do that without training. In all of these years, they never asked for training or money for another attorney, they were just doing what they want to do,” Barnes-Sutton said.

Barnes-Sutton has had her own set of ethical questions emerge over her tenure, for what it’s worth to note.

She attributed the push for more ethics cash to Commissioner Jeff Rader, who she said has three pending ethics actions. He wants to transfer more money to the ethics board “so that he can say, I have nothing to hide because I want to increase the money, and perhaps someone will get an inflated amount of money to be the attorney, and that they’ll look favorably on it.”

Let that line of logic sink in a moment.

“We’re trying to straighten this board out, but throwing money at them isn’t going to do it,” she said.

Well, neither is not throwing money at them, ma’am. This move was a mistake, and they’ll be explaining this mistake in front of Lakeside town hall meetings next year. If they bother to show up.

5 comments

  1. bgsmallz says:

    The cynical side of me says, “THIS….a $43,000 budget gap is what got Common Cause of GA interested in DeKalb County Governance?” Huh?

    The even more cynical side of me says, “Why should we expect anything but self serving from the commissioners?” The only two that I remotely trust are Boyer and May.

    The really, really cynical side of me says that all this smells like people propping up a potential political run by Mr. Ernst for office. I don’t ever remember seeing a litany of press releases about an appointment to the BOE before…and now I’ve got pieces in the Brookhaven Post (which is run by someone that was plugged in enough with DeKalb politics that they hosted Burrell Ellis campaign fundraisers at their home), the Daily Report, and the Dunwoody Crier listing his bio, credentials, and things like ‘he was an assistant to Gov Roy Barnes’?

    http://www.atlawblog.com/2013/07/dekalb-ethics-board-member-issues-reassurances/

    Three board members appointed and only one gets the full three paragraph treatment? Hmm…so that got me thinking and looking at Mr. Ernst’s campaign donations…strong Dem lean and pretty active…

    Two that I just love…
    Donation to Jim Eyre- The only “No City” candidate running for council in Brookhaven
    AND
    Donation to Sandy Murray- The “crazy” No City mayoral candidate featured on this site

    So…connect Democratic donations to appointment to DeKalb ethics board to connection with no city candidates and no city propaganda machine (Brookhaven Post)…again, being really cynical, I would say that Mr. Ernst is going to run for office (say, mayor of Brookhaven or state house…) using his ‘ethics’ background as a platform. I’d like to believe I’m wrong and that ethics is the true focus here, but if I’ve learned anything about DeKalb politics, I’ve learned that a lot of times claims of ethics, cries of lack of ethics, and statements about ethics are nothing but political maneuvering.

Comments are closed.