Support and vote for a new Ethics Board

John Ernst

By John Ernst
With the conviction July 1 of Burrell Ellis on perjury and extortion charges, our county began to fix its sullied image on ethics. It was a difficult day for many in DeKalb, but an important one nonetheless.
So where do we go from here?

We must continue to move forward. At our next Ethics Board meeting later this month, we will hold a final hearing on a complaint against one county commissioner and a preliminary hearing on a complaint against another. Our board will also determine whether we have jurisdiction on a complaint against the former chairman of the DeKalb Development Authority.

Many do not know yet that the current Ethics Board will likely be dissolved at the end of the year and replaced by a new board. Legislation enacted earlier this year by the Georgia General Assembly creates a more independent board appointed by organizations in the county such as Leadership DeKalb, rather than the CEO and the Board of Commissioners.

This legislation will be placed on the ballot in November as a referendum for approval by voters.  I strongly support and will continue to advocate for this new board.  I hope you will vote for it this November at the ballot box as it is most certainly is a step in the right direction.

Also, I’d like to point out an issue that continues to hamstring our Ethics Board right now. We currently lack a quorum to take action on many important decisions. After two resignations within the past few months, our board is down to five members, rather than a full board of seven. I call on Interim CEO Lee May to quickly fill these positions so that we can do the work of improving ethics and transparency in DeKalb for the remainder of the year.

Nothing could more clearly signal a new day in DeKalb County and a new no-tolerance attitude toward official corruption than immediately starting with an Ethics Board that has the membership to get down to work, rooting out corruption.

Will we solve the crisis of confidence in DeKalb? I remain hopeful that many recent sad chapters in our story will be followed by more positive ones. We are putting the right tools in place to solve many of our problems. I hope that we will continue in the right direction.

–John Ernst chairs the DeKalb Board of Ethics.

Educate yourself, become more active in public service

By Jeff Radar

The recent conviction of CEO Burrell Ellis caps yet another chapter of DeKalb’s long narrative of abuse of the public trust by elected officials, appointed officials and public employees. Why is DeKalb under such a cloud and what can be done to right our ship?

First and foremost, DeKalb must evolve from its roots as a suburban county run by a series of omnipotent leaders with little oversight.

Some progress has been made in the last year with the passage of three reform amendments to DeKalb’s Organizational Act, its “constitution.” These reforms require legally binding local purchasing laws, the establishment of an independent “internal auditor” watchdog, and an ethics board that does not depend on elected officials to appoint its members.

If they had been in place previously, these alone would have likely discouraged the behavior that has ruined the lives of the recently disgraced.

More work is to be done, including a requirement that administrative practices be standardized and uniformly enforced and the refinement of budgeting and financial practices for transparency and accountability.

But even a government of laws still relies on elected representatives to understand problems, identify solutions, and evaluate performance. DeKalb’s voters have not been successful in electing leaders that well represent their interests, and don’t seem very interested in the opportunity to do so.

The last incumbent commissioner to lose her seat in an election was Jean Williams, in 1994. She was defeated by Elaine Boyer, who resigned in disgrace last year.

Since then, gerrymandering, patronage, and voter apathy has locked challengers out of the electoral process and given incumbents free rein for any personal or political activity they want, including bankruptcy, domestic violence, check fraud, conversion of public funds to private use, and extravagance at public expense, to name a only a few of the failings.

The public’s response is disheartening. The most recent election to fill the vacant District 5 Commission seat attracted less than 6 percent turnout. It can be reasonably argued that DeKalb voters are getting the representation they deserve.
What does that mean? Often we are represented by figures that seem superficially attractive, but have no substance. With no track record of success in their private lives, they depend too much on their offices for income, or see their offices as private property, not a public trust. They make bad decisions, and they discourage others from service.
What can be done?

First, the voters must understand and vote their interests. Educate and motivate yourself, your family and friends. There is a growing network of local news sources and bloggers who work to inform and influence opinion.

Second, we must all become more active in public service. Join a neighborhood or civic organization, and participate in efforts to build and strengthen the community. And run for election, if you are successful enough to afford to donate the time required, and have the skills and temperament to serve the greater good.

Don’t worry so much that it’s a swamp. Drain it! You would be surprised how quickly things can improve with a good government majority serving you.

DeKalb is not so different from other metro governments. But we have lost our momentum, and seem dominated by politicians who think first of their own welfare, and not yours. It’s the voter’s job to sit up and take charge. And the politicians will respond – or lose the election.

Jeff Rader is a member of the DeKalb County Commission.