The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Aug. 27 that the makeup of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics is unconstitutional because most members are appointed by non-governmental entities.
In the unanimous ruling, Justice Harold Melton wrote for the court that the “private entities do not answer to the people as required by our Constitution” and “are not authorized to wield the power to appoint public officials to the DeKalb County Board of Ethics.”
The state high court’s decision upholds last year’s same ruling by DeKalb Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson.
The challenge to the makeup of the board was brought by former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who, in 2016, faced ethics complaints against her while she was in office.
Sutton challenged the constitutionality of House Bill 597, a referendum approved by more than 90 percent of DeKalb voters in 2015, that allows four members of the 7-member volunteer board be appointed by outside groups, such as the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Leadership DeKalb and DeKalb universities, including Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University.
The new law was intended to create an independent Board of Ethics; prior to the overwhelming approval of HB 597, the Board of Ethics was made up of members appointed by the DeKalb CEO and Board of Commissioners.
State Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), whose district includes portions of Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville, was the House sponsor of HB 597.
“The Supreme Court has spoken and now we need to fix it,” he said in an interview.
Holcomb said he had not yet read the entire ruling but said there are two options to fix the bill: a constitutional amendment or pass legislation that requires the legislature approve the member appointments from outside groups.
He added the state will also need to study the scope of numerous boards across the state impacted by the ruling.
State Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta), whose district includes Decatur and a portion of Brookhaven, sponsored the HB 597 in the Senate. She agreed with the two options to fixing the legislation and noted the ruling is “bigger than DeKalb.”
“I’m disappointed in the ruling because best practices on a lot of ethics boards like this allow some independence … so as to not concentrate power,” she said. She also noted the issue was “bigger than DeKalb” and affected several ethics boards across the state including in Atlanta and Gwinnett County.
Melton noted in the state Supreme Court’s decision in a footnote that the fact DeKalb voters approved HB 597 “does not cure the constitutional infirmity created by the appointment process described in the local law.”
Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst is a former chair of the DeKalb Board of Ethics, serving from 2013 through 2015. He resigned to announce his run for mayor.