Nearly a year ago, I was appointed to the office of DeKalb’s Chief Executive by the governor under some pretty bad circumstances. As everyone is aware, there was a cloud of suspicion, uncertainty and a perception of impropriety, if not actual wrongdoing.
But before that, DeKalb County was in the news repeatedly with allegations and accusations. Certainly the suspended CEO captured most of the spotlight, but he was not alone. There were several employees at that time that had been caught taking or soliciting kickbacks. And over the past year, the hits just kept coming, including more allegations of potentially criminal wrongdoing and the whole P-card [county-issued purchasing cards] fiasco.
What is frustrating is that DeKalb County has more than 6,500 employees. If everyone who has been in the news is rightly accused, then only a small fraction of all employees have sullied and tarnished the good work of all the rest. It is incumbent upon us to turn this negative perception around.
As in every government body, we have mechanisms in place to properly adjudicate claims of wrongdoing. For example, our ethics board, which has one of the largest budgets, has the most resources and the most recourse to take action if it sees fit.
I am a firm believer in due process and allowing the issues that have been brought forth to run their legal course. Having said that, it’s the improper and possible illegal activity in DeKalb’s ranks that we don’t know about that keeps me awake at night.
We need more tools in our toolbox of ensuring ethics and integrity in this county. This is why I announced an executive order that clearly defines what our ethics policy is. It compiles our ethics guidelines which can be found in the Organizational Act as it pertains to merit system employees, but this executive order will take it a step further.
All employees under the supervision of the CEO are required to adhere to the ethics policy. Specific guidelines as it pertains to gifts, meals, travel and tickets are spelled out so there is no room for interpretation.
No employee may receive a gift of more than $40 with a maximum of $120 per calendar year. It’s very simple, and the only exceptions are few and specific. The same applies to meals.
Travel and event tickets, which should not happen very frequently, if at all, are only allowed for official government purposes, and strict limits apply.
Also included in this executive order, I am recommending a budget adjustment to fund the creation of a fulltime Chief Integrity Officer, investigator and administrative assistant to serve the DeKalb County Ethics Board. These positions will be hired by, and report directly to, the Board of Ethics.
I am recommending the Chief Integrity Officer be responsible for training all county employees and investigating all tips regarding unethical behavior. There will also be an ethics hotline and email account which will be monitored regularly. Most importantly, the Chief Integrity Officer will have the unilateral power and responsibility to bring any ethics concerns directly to the attention of the Ethics Board.
I am serious about restoring ethics in DeKalb County Government. We will have the rules clearly spelled out, and an independent set of eyes and ears to ensure that the bad apples are dealt with expeditiously. This is all new to DeKalb County, but the time is now for us to take drastic steps to ensure integrity and ethics.
This is not the end. Rather, this is one aspect of a comprehensive, holistic and ultimately aggressive approach to restore the public’s trust in DeKalb County.
Over the next few weeks, I will be announcing additional initiatives that specifically address our Purchasing and Contracting department and a new division within our police department.
The bottom line is this: Violations of ethics rules will not be tolerated by anyone, and we are putting our money where our mouth is.
Lee May is the interim Chief Executive Officer of DeKalb County.