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The Practice Corner: The Ethical Crisis in DeKalb County

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

Dekalb County has an ethics crisis. Sure, the State of Georgia can be said to have an ethics crisis given recent trials, a jury verdict, and settlements that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars. However, former DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer pleaded guilty in federal court on September 3, 2014, to two counts of fraud and depriving DeKalb constituents of $90,000. Another experienced politician, DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson, had a website for which taxpayers paid almost $2,000 that solicited funds for Watson’s re-election campaign. Commissioner Watson has agreed to repay the taxpayers, according to WSB Channel 2, but an ethics complaint filed August 22, 2014, is pending. On August 27, 2014, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton paid more than $34,000 of taxpayer money to her boyfriend, “mostly for his advice on how to be a commissioner.” And, as of the date this article is published, suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis is on trial defending against charges of corruption.

Unfortunately, DeKalb County has a history of issues of criminality, corruption, and ethical issues that are more than the common shenanigans associated with politics, as if common shenanigans were somehow acceptable. The issues that DeKalb County faces with respect to ethics are embarrassing and inexcusable. In addition to holding those who violate ethical canons accountable, we as DeKalb citizens must demand more going forward.

As members of the DeKalb Bar, we have a responsibility to show our fellow citizens that the laws have meaning, but that even in the absence of law, there is a responsibility to the public that many of those who are winning elections and holding office do not understand or appreciate. Some would say, cynically, that we voters get the government we deserve. I would disagree that DeKalb voters deserve the reprehensible type of behavior that we have come to see from some of our elected officials.

There is a movement to change this pattern and we should all welcome it. As lawyers, we should see what we can do to be at the forefront of the call for change and the action that must follow. This year, Leadership DeKalb will have a new program day dedicated to Integrity and Ethics. Leadership DeKalb, as part of its leadership training, recognizes that words and policies alone are not sufficient to change this pattern of behavior and restore public confidence in government. The program will address what messages our children take from these scandals, how they are addressed and analyze how our response reflects upon our culture and our community.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate on the committee that worked to put this program day together for Leadership DeKalb. Still, I am vigilant for more opportunities to try to engage fellow members of my community in dialogues about how we have come to accept these occurrences without the outrage that they warrant. Scandals can be found in some respect in many other counties, whether it in Douglas, Clayton, or even the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. For some reason, we seem less surprised these days when it happens over and over again in DeKalb. This is precisely why I, along with many others, see the matter as a crisis.

Perhaps the reason that these things seem more and more common is that we have lost a sense of shame. There was a time when certain transgressions, brought to light by public scrutiny, would result in a genuine sense of shame. These days, many of these same types of transgressions are dismissed as mistakes. While certain mistakes may not warrant a sense of shame, so to speak, others, such as those that give rise to ethical violations, do merit a sense of shame.

We have the right to expect our elected officials and other leaders in our community to act the same way when nobody is watching as they do when they are under the microscope. Lately, it would appear as if it is not a question of whether or not they violate ethical guidelines, but whether they are caught. This is not acceptable in our community, and we must find a way to convey that message to all our leaders.

One of the more pressing issues in DeKalb County today and over the past decade is the rise of cityhood. Many communities in DeKalb County have already incorporated into cities, and many others are in the process of doing the same thing. This is a very polarizing issue in DeKalb, but one that is not made easier by the onslaught of ethical violations and scandal. If these issues pertaining to cityhood are to be sorted out by the legislature and the constituents, it is not for the best for such decisions to be driven by anger and dissolution in government overall.

It is clear that the troubles DeKalb has with its leadership will have an impact that likely favors the creation of more and more cities. It remains to be seen whether those who take control of these more localized cities will do a more effective job managing public funds and carrying the public trust. At this time, it does appear that at least some of these cities have done just that. Regardless, DeKalb has made it difficult to stand by and favor the devil the constituents know from the one that has not yet been given a chance to grow and flourish.

The first step to addressing the ethics crisis in DeKalb is recognizing and identifying it as a crisis. After that, it is necessary for DeKalb’s political leadership, as well as leaders in the private sector, as well as others, such as religious and social leaders, to make ethics a priority. Ethics should receive a prominent role in DeKalb schools and should be discussed openly in civics meetings in city and county government. No longer should we take for granted that those whom we have elected to lead us will know what is and is not acceptable from an ethical standpoint. We have been misled and let down far too many times to continue to be that naïve.

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