5 Vital Personal Budget Audit Questions To Consider
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* The business of ethics is suffering from neglect in DeKalb County, where the panel that decides right and wrong in government can operate only because members continue to serve long after their appointments have expired.
When any one member of the county Board of Ethics fails to show up at any of the quarterly meetings, the board lacks a quorum and cannot take action. Consequently, cases are languishing.
Now, the board has reached a breaking point. Only three of its seven members have unexpired terms. Two members who continue to serve though their terms have expired both want to leave.
“We’re really in a state of crisis right now in terms of ethics in DeKalb County,” said Stanley Baum, a member of the board since its inception in 1991. His term expired three years ago, but he keeps going “since they haven’t appointed a successor.”
Patricia Killingsworth is ready for a break.
She has volunteered on the board since 1998, and she continues to serve though her term expired last year. Even though she’s had to miss meetings due to the illness and subsequent death of a family member, the County Commission will not replace her.
“I’m going to remain until I’m replaced,” Killingsworth said. “But I’m desperate. I want to go.”
One member resigned in 2004, stopped attending meetings and has never been replaced. Another, who’s term expired last year, finally stopped attending this summer.
The Ethics Board was created in a landslide referendum nearly two decades ago. Though popular with voters, it’s been something of a forgotten stepchild by the county, which is supposed to supply appointees and an operating budget. The board hears allegations of conflicts of interest and enforces laws that require elected and appointed members of government to disclose their financial interests.
The board can fine officials and even remove them from office. And Aubrey Villines, one of the members whose term has not expired, said service can make one into something of a pariah. The board has had to pursue matters involving people he knows, and that has taken a personal toll. “I have lost friendships that go back 20 years,” he said.
Yet neither he nor the four other board members who continue to attend meetings attribute the inaction by the county to any ill will.
They all do say, though, that there has been obvious neglect. The county ignores them — whether their pleas are made via letters or by face-to-face meetings. And the pleas have been made for years, they say.
“I’ve had sit-down meetings with these people,” said the board’s chairwoman, Teri Thompson. We’ve got to do this immediately,’ they say. Then they pat me on my head and send me on my way.”
The county’s executive branch appoints two members, and the legislative branch appoints five. There was some confusion — among board members and county officials — about how many of the four expired terms belong to each branch. Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis didn’t answer a request for an interview, but a representative said Ellis was working on several appointments.
Since the seven-member County Commission votes as a whole on each of its appointments, the responsibility to spur action falls to the commission’s presiding officer, who is elected by a majority of commissioners.
Ellis was the presiding officer when Baum’s term expired, followed by Commissioner Kathie Gannon last year and Commissioner Larry Johnson this year. Both Gannon and Johnson expressed uncertainty about the way appointments are supposed to work, but both said the Ethics Board is a vital agency with important work that needs support.
Gannon couldn’t explain why the commission made no appointments when she was in charge last year. “If there are still some positions open, we need to fill them,” she said.
Johnson, a veteran of the board who is serving his first term as the lead commissioner, said he’s still getting up to speed after nine months in the role. “I was brand-new, so I didn’t know what the process was,” he said, adding that he hoped to get appointments in place by November.
Meanwhile, a couple of cases have languished since a quorum couldn’t be reached at the last meeting, including one involving a member of the county’s Development Authority and another involving a member of the Board of Tax Assessors.
It’s not just the vacancies that are causing a problem. Ethics Board members say they need money for an investigator to pursue facts and a programmer to update their Web site, which hasn’t been touched since 2005. And DeKalb could provide one other thing: a place to meet.
“It’s not uncommon that we will show up and we can’t even get into the building,” Villines said. The last time they gathered, he said, they talked their way into a county office building in Decatur and held their meeting in a hallway.
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