The following is an op-ed published in the AJC by Senate Leader Steve Henson
Honesty and transparency in government should be a cornerstone of a democracy. Transparency is what protects us all from corruption. No one or nothing should be excused from this scrutiny. It is what the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had in mind when they framed our government.
In a transparent government, there is no place for sweetheart deals, cronyism, or pay-to-play legislation. There is no place for shady maneuvering in order to protect those in elected office. We are elected to represent the citizens, and no one’s political career or personal or business interests should trump the best representation we can provide to our constituencies.
The past few years have revealed an inadequacy of ethics enforcement in Georgia government. Allegations and findings of misconduct require our immediate attention. There is simply no reason not to have a government process that is open and transparent, unless you have something to hide.
The restoration of the public’s trust and confidence through meaningful ethics reform is imperative to restore and re-energize citizen participation in government. It is imperative to hold together our democracy.
Senate Democrats have renewed our call for an independent state ethics commission after a trial found the secretary general of the ethics commission was unfairly treated when she began investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign fundraising. The jury found that Stacey Kalberman should be paid $700,000, in addition to legal fees.
Three additional cases, with similar sets of facts, will play out this summer. The cost to the taxpayers will likely exceed $2 million — money that could have been used to end the backlog of ethics cases and enhance the funding of the ethics commission.
Governor Deal and the Georgia Legislature must not allow the reality or perception that political and personal interests are placed over those of the citizens of Georgia.
The people of Georgia deserve ethics enforcement that is unbiased and not controlled by the very people it’s investigating. While the governor tries to distance himself from the case, saying this is an internal administration squabble, the truth is the squabble was created by an investigation of his actions. Is it in the best interest of government transparency that the governor appoints three of the five members of the ethics commission and recommends what their annual budget will be each year?
Democrats recognize that politics can never be fully removed from the political process, but we believe there are ways we can make our government more open and more transparent. We can create a more independent ethics commission. We can provide a funding formula so the commission’s budget is not dependent on political maneuvering.
For several years, we have proposed legislation that would legitimize ethics enforcement in Georgia by removing control of the ethics process from those subject to its power. Instead of a commission appointed by legislators or the governor, Democrats have proposed the creation an ethics commission appointed by the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, who would be instructed to strive for diversity on the commission and 180 days to adjudicate claims.
Georgia Democrats have been moving forward on improving ethics for decades by advancing financial disclosures of elected officials and lobbyists; capping the amount of political contributions; and, preventing campaign contributions during the legislative session. We were leaders in the introduction of legislation in the recent fight to limit lobbyist gifts to legislators, and we will continue to fight to make any state agency charged with the responsibility to watch over our activities to be independent and effective.
It is time to restore public trust in governance. The governor should ask for the resignation of the present members of the ethics commission and work with other leaders in the state to appoint new members that will restore public trust. He should support a new proposal that removes his office and the Legislature from the appointment process of this agency. Now is the time to act to improve the state’s government transparency and ethics.