DeKalb County may be getting ready for a government do-over — again.
Acting County CEO Lee May and four commissioners indicated at a news conference Thursday that a revolution, or at least a minor coup, could well be afoot while suspended CEO Burrell Ellis is facing a corruption trial.
A special grand jury, whose work helped lead to Ellis’ indictment, concluded in a scathing report that opportunities for corruption abound in DeKalb’s CEO form of government.
May said commissioners were directing the county executive assistant, Zach Williams, to review that report and make recommendations in 30 days about whether to change the government and how. Williams is also to look into the accusations against certain county employees and recommend action against them.
The commissioners and May stopped short of saying how the government should be changed — although May has recommended doing away with the elected CEO post — but said it needed to be seriously tweaked or upended altogether as the grand jury recommended.
Commissioners said any changes should include mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability to restore public confidence.
“Our government form right now depends on the expertise and integrity of individuals, and this is unchecked by any other means,” said Commissioner Jeff Radar. “Contracts can be manipulated to where the recommendation the commission is given is a cooked recommendation.”
Most county governments in metro Atlanta are overseen by an elected commission, which hires a county manager to run daily operations. The organizing legislation for the DeKalb government said the executive assistant was to have the qualifications of a county manager. Williams, who reports to the CEO and to the commission, was county manager for Fulton County.
But DeKalb’s executive assistant, who is also the chief operating officer, has been second fiddle to the elected CEO, who functions similarly to a strong mayor but has the added power of being a tie-breaker in commission votes and can veto legislation. It takes five votes on the 7-member commission to override the veto.
The DeKalb CEO also has more power over contracts and more de facto power to move budget funds from one department to another without the commission’s approval. Such actions have prompted conflicts with the commission. Spokesman Burke Brennan said organizing legislation made the budget a “gray area.”
The position was created decades ago at the urging of then-commission chairman Manuel Maloof, a legendary figure in DeKalb politics. Former CEO Liane Levetan said the switch was largely to bar the chairman from voting on zoning, which “activists” saw as a conflict of interest.
But divided government eventually sparked in-fighting. “It created a form of government for a particular person and we have been living with the consequences of that,” said Commissioner Elaine Boyer.
Restrictions the commission has put on the CEO’s power in the past have been limited, most notably ending his power to preside over commission meetings and to control the legislation on the agenda.
The grand jury’s report says the CEO form of government “provides too many opportunities for fraudulent influences and fosters a culture that is overly politicized and in which appropriate business relationships are created.”
DeKalb’s legislative delegation has long been divided over changing the CEO setup, but there is some bipartisan support for change.
“It’s time to change the CEO form of government and I think there will be political support for a change at this time,” state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur said Thursday.
Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said DeKalb has been plagued by infighting in its government a long time.
“Starting with Manuel Maloof, who was a benevolent despot, and I don’t say that unkindly, it’s been constant fighting, constant lawsuits and bickering,” said Millar. Maloof was CEO from 1985 to 1992. Millar said he expected legislation to be drafted to move the county toward the more professional county manager system.
But county manager systems are also subject to politics and see their share of corruption, as scandals plaguing Gwinnett County show.
“Look at Gwinnett County, with the county chair and they have their problems,” said Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “Any system can be bent by unscrupulous people or bad-minded people.”
“What would be the difference?” state Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, chairman of the DeKalb County delegation, said. “Anytime, you can have bad individuals in any stage that will create a situation where the county manager and county commission chairman got together and collude and defraud the public.”
Mosby said he supports strengthening the commission and weakening the CEO position to even out the checks and balances, but he said the elected position provides more transparency to voters than a system in which powerful commissioners can influence a manager behind the scenes.
A special-purpose grand jury, after a yearlong investigation into how DeKalb County awards contracts, singled out eliminating the CEO form of government, which it concluded gave the CEO too much power. The grand jury, made up of 23 DeKalb citizens, recommended other changes, including:
- Hiring an internal auditor who is independent of management and the CEO. This position has already has been approved but is unfilled.
- Eliminating the director of public safety position, currently appointed by the CEO. The position runs the risk of “becoming a repository of ‘internal investigations’ where cases can be hidden and never see the light of public scrutiny.”
- Establishing a website that promotes transparency by allowing citizens to track spending.
- Training employees better who are involved in awarding contracts
About the CEO form of government
DeKalb County is one of only a handful of Georgia counties with a CEO form of government. It means:
- The CEO operates much like a strong mayor, giving DeKalb distinct legislative and executive branches. In all but a few Georgia counties there is no executive branch, only an elected commission.
- An elected CEO runs the day-to-day operations of the county. In all other metro-Atlanta counties a hired professional, such as a county manager, runs the government. The county manger answers to the commission.
- In DeKalb, the CEO has authority to grant and cancel smaller contracts; he also exerts control over the bidding of larger contracts through his power power to appoint committees that award large contracts.
- The CEO has veto authority over the commission. The commission can override the CEO with five of seven commission votes.
More corruption allegations
A DeKalb special-purpose grand jury investigating contracts in the water department and beyond recommended criminal charges for former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and criminal investigations of other top administrators. Ellis has been charged with crimes and has pleaded not guilty.
Former CEO Burrell Ellis
Ellis, who was CEO from 2004 until his suspension in July, has been charged with 15 counts of attempted extortion, theft and conspiracy stemming from allegations that he strong-armed contractors into giving to his campaign. The grand jury investigation says Ellis engaged in bid-rigging by steering contracts to preferred companies.
Former CEO Vernon Jones
Served as CEO between 2000 and 2008. The report claims Jones may have used his office to engage in bid-rigging. It recommends a criminal investigation.
Former public safety director William ‘Wiz” Miller
The report recommends a criminal obstruction-of-justice investigation into allegations that Miller halted a DeKalb police investigation into bid-rigging.
Former chief of staff Jabari Simama
Simama, who served as chief of staff under Ellis, is accused in the report of manipulating the committees that award contracts. The report recommends a criminal investigation into possible bid-rigging.
Former Ellis campaign manager Kevin Ross
Ross ran Ellis’ first campaign for CEO, and the report accused him of using his influence in the administration to steer contracts to clients he represented. The report recommends a criminal investigation into possible bid-rigging.
Digging Deep. The Atanta Journal-Constitution has followed the investigation into DeKalb contracting for more than a year. The newspaper’s investigations have shed light on financial ties between suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and county contractors and uncovered details about how Ellis may have strong-armed vendors into donating to his campaign. Some of the newspaper’s reporting is cited in the recently released special grand jury report that recommends removing Ellis from office and alleges a culture of corruption in DeKalb County contracting.