Last night, the DeKalb Board of Ethics voted to censure Commissioner Stan Watson for voting to award contracts to a firm he worked for instead of recusing himself. It’s the first time in at least 15 years that the Board of Ethics had managed to take action against an elected official.
But in the view of the ethics board chairman John Ernst, it’s hardly sufficient to restore trust to a county government that DeKalb’s internal investigator described as “rotten to the core.”
So, perhaps, it’s unsurprising that Ernst resigned his position as chairman the next morning.
Ernst ruffled feathers through his tenure, communicating directly with the public about the state of the board — underfunded, without a quorum and beset with administrative insanity. A combination of quiet diplomacy with lawmakers and public shaming of the commissioners contributed directly to changes to the board’s financial position and power to investigate.
Ernst’s attention-getting advocacy contributed directly to the introduction of a referendum on the November ballot, changing the way the Board of Ethics will be appointed. If the referendum passes, community groups will choose board members instead of the politicians on the board of commissioners. The DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb legislative delegation, the judge of the DeKalb Probate Court, Leadership DeKalb, DeKalb colleges and universities, and the chief judge of DeKalb Superior Court will appoint members.
(I would have liked to see the DeKalb Municipal Association get a pick, too. But no one cares what I like.)
Ernst’s resignation letter urges voters to support the referendum.
“We must actively promote transparency in the county and do a better job of holding our elected officials accountable,” he wrote. “We must not just give lip service to the essential job of solving this crisis of confidence in DeKalb.”
The county has been short of leaders who have made ethics and good governance central to their work. I note offhand that Ernst happens to live in the city of Brookhaven, where competent government has been a bit of a problem. Just sayin’.