It’s been hard not to hear about all of the ethical issues plaguing DeKalb County over the past year. Residents have had more than a few reasons to be angered — the former CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted back in June on 15 counts, including theft by taking and several conspiracy charges related to bullying contractors into giving him political contributions.
The scandal has cast a negative light on the entire county but, despite that, its ethics board still remains grossly underfunded and essentially toothless.
John Ernst, a recently appointed member of the board, told WSB’s Richard Belcher last month that “DeKalb County [has] failed to invest in its ethics operations going many years back”. The county has committed only $20,000 so far this year to the 8 member ethics board, a paltry sum compared to the $350,000 the City of Atlanta spends on its ethics department.
Further hamstringing the board is the DeKalb County Commission’s lethargic response to increased funding requests. April Hunt of the AJC reports that “commissioners are moving slowly on the effort, saying that political vendettas could drive more complaints if the board is able to hire professional investigators.”
Elaine Boyer, commissioner for District 1, says that the board should “hire an attorney to make them more professional before asking the county to ‘throw money’ for possible probes” reports Hunt. “Who’s recommended for investigation has been used for political purposes before,” Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said.
These are the type of explanations that further alienate elected officials from their constituents. Who wants to hear that the reason their elected officials aren’t funding a body that ensures above-board ethical behavior is being afraid they might get accused of doing something wrong? Restoring trust in the commission after the Ellis scandal is going to take some serious overhauling — a process that should undoubtedly start with increased funding of an ethics board that guarantees oversight of the goings on of the county commission and its employees.
According to Hunt, “the county’s charter orders DeKalb to give the ethics board whatever it needs to ensure that elected officials and county workers are following the rules.”
Over the past few years, it’s clear that this mandate has not been adhered to. A lack of appointments have left the board without a quorum at more than a few meetings over the past five years, only exacerbating the lack of funding. A potential nominee has even removed their name from consideration for the board because they believed the budget constraints left the body powerless.
Mary Swint of the Dunwoody Crier quoted the acting chair Isaac Blythers as saying “most people perceive the ethics board as a joke; why bother filing a complaint.” Mr. Blythers also went on to note insufficient staff support and inadequate funding for legal assistance.
Unfortunately its seems that even when things are starting to look up, the Commission takes a huge step back. Despite the fact that in a recent sit down with Richard Belcher, interim CEO Lee May said he believes the board should receive more funding after putting together a plan and asking for additional funding, it appears adequate funding isn’t a priority for the committee making the recommendation.
As Mary Swint also reported yesterday “the DeKalb County Board of Ethics, which received only $4,500 in the 2013 county budget [for expenses and $12,000 for legal fees], says it needs a $62,250 budget for the remainder of this year to pay for outside legal services, training for board members, operating expenses such as investigator and court reporter services, and compensation for administrative support.”
“To make up the difference, Commissioner Jeff Rader has proposed transferring $57,750 from the commission’s own budget to the Ethics Board.” This makes a lot of sense – the Ethics Board could receive the additional funding it needs for the rest of the year without further burdening the taxpayers because it would come from funds already allocated to the Commission.
As dismaying as it may seem, the finance committee met late yesterday afternoon and recommended an increase of only $6,000 for the remainder of this year, a far cry from the Board’s request of $62,250.
The final hope for the Board’s requested funding for the rest of this year will come next Tuesday, October 22 at the full Commission meeting. DeKalb residents should contact Commissioners and demand full funding of the Ethics Board.
Let’s hope that the DeKalb County Commission will step up and give its ethics board some teeth.