State Rep. Kevin Levitas plans to pre-file legislation next week that would subject the DeKalb County School System to an ethics commission designed to prevent school board members from serving with conflicts of interest.
The bill, called the DeKalb School Board Transparency Act, is a direct response to school board member Gene Walker’s former chairmanship of the county’s Development Authority. In August, Walker resigned from the authority, which oversees deals with local developers and promotes economic growth and job creation countywide.
Furious residents criticized Walker for accepting more than $21,000 in school board campaign contributions from Sembler, a St. Petersburg, Fla., developer, last year. Walker, who chaired the authority, found himself in the middle of a dispute over whether Sembler deserved a tax abatement worth more than $40 million over 20 years to build Town Brookhaven, a 600,000-square-foot, mixed-use development near Oglethorpe University.
“The citizens of DeKalb are entitled to be represented by a school board free of conflicts of interest,” Levitas, D-Atlanta, said in a statement.
Levitas said his bill will clarify both the rights and responsibilities of those serving on the school board and provide a clear set of guidelines to help members avoid conflicts.
“This is about protecting the integrity of the DeKalb County School System and ensuring the honest and fair services of elected officials to the public whom they are supposed to represent,” Levitas said. “Other counties have put ethics legislation in place after major problems have come to light. My bill is aimed at preventing them from arising in the first place as well as at having a means for remedying breaches of the public trust if they do arise.”
The Transparency Act would provide a code of ethics and establish an ethics commission. It would also provide a list of prohibited practices by board members and require deeper disclosures about potential conflicts of interest.
Walker said he has never spoken to Levitas about the legislation and called the lawmaker’s efforts “frivolous.” Walker has said he resigned from the authority because he and other authority members felt he had become a distraction. Walker said he did nothing illegal or wrong and disclosed contributions he received from Sembler.
“Every contribution I receive I report on a financial disclosure statement, and universally, every place, transparency or full disclosure is the anecdote for the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said. “There’s much more important things [Levitas] should be working on.”
Levitas’ bill will be assigned a number and then referred to a House committee when the General Assembly convenes in January.