The Ethics Referendum is a Trick. Vote No.

Today is a test of our civic broadcasting system.

It’s election day. There’s a ballot initiative to change the ethics board system in DeKalb County. Almost every civic organization that has been working on ethics issues and has looked at this referendum has recommended voting against it. Public commentary in the media has been overwhelmingly opposed to it. At least one legislator — State Senator Elena Parent — who voted to put it on the ballot has turned against it.

But it’s a referendum with the word “ethics” in it.

The legislation requires any county employee reporting an ethical lapse in DeKalb government to go to HR first, and prevents action by the ethics board until HR resolves it … which can be never, frankly. It’s an anti-whistleblower act. It also strips the ethics officer of the ability to act independently.

The bill basically takes a whack at Stacey Kalberman, the county’s ethics officer, as payback for her work exposing some low-grade mismanagement a couple years ago. It does so, frankly, at the expense of the public reputation of CEO Michael Thurmond, who shouldn’t be this petty. The only group I can find that’s actually supporting the bill is the DeKalb NAACP, which appears to be carrying the water for the bill’s principal author, State Senator Emanuel Jones, after Thurmond called in a marker for changes on the law.

There’s a black-white divide in the legislature on the bill, because … DeKalb. By and large, black legislators support it and white ones oppose it. Some of this looks like resentment about a white ethics officer standing in moral judgment over a majority-black commission and executive. Some of it is more substantive, like the desire to get the county the hell out of the headlines for corruption problems. And some of this is raw politics. Michael Thurmond is well respected and powerful and can end the career of a black legislator in this county. This was a favor.

Most voters in DeKalb County don’t even know there’s a vote today. Turnout will be around 25 percent in the municipalities, where city council races and mayoral races are happening. It will be close to 5 percent everywhere else.

Three questions will be answered today. Opponents of the referendum targeted municipalities, where they knew city voters were more motivated to go vote because of the contested elections.

  • Will those voters be enough to outweigh the less-motivated voters in unincorporated DeKalb?
  • Can a campaign to inform city voters about the referendum’s shortcomings actually reach enough of them to stop it?
  • Will enough voters in unincorporated DeKalb smell the horse manure?

The vote should be a slam dunk no. I think it’s going to pass two to one, because the mechanisms of informing voters on low-energy local politics are broken.


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