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Reporter’s Notebook:

Inside the unusual votes of the DeKalb Commission

By Mark Niesse - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When is an elected official’s decision not to cast a vote more powerful than his vote would have been? When he’s a member of the DeKalb County Commission, that’s when.

The situation unfolded because of an even split among the commission’s six members and the county’s one-of-a-kind governance structure.

During a contentious series of votes Tuesday on whether to spend $5 million to buy theSouth DeKalb YMCA, Commissioner Jeff Rader’s ultimate decision to abstain was the deciding factor.

After about 45 minutes of passionate public comments for and against the YMCA purchase, Rader called for a vote to deny the proposal.

The commission was divided in a 3-3 tie, requiring Interim CEO Lee May to be brought into the auditorium to cast the determining vote. May voted against the denial, keeping the plan alive for further debate.

The commission was only put in that position in the first place because May was elevated from his elected district seat last year after Gov. Nathan Deal suspended CEO Burrell Ellis from office following charges alleging he pressured county contractors to donate to his campaign.

May’s promotion to CEO left just six members on the commission as May is seeking candidates for his temporary replacement to serve at least until the outcome of Ellis’ trial.

A second vote on delaying the YMCA proposal until January failed on a 4-2 vote.

Then, when Commissioner Stan Watson called for a final vote to approve the deal, Rader realized that by abstaining, he could prevent the commission from reaching the four votes required for the measure to pass.

The vote was three in favor, two opposed and one abstention, resulting in the YMCA proposal being delayed for at least two more weeks. May wasn’t able to cast the fourth vote needed because the CEO can only vote in the event of a tie.

Commissioners Larry Johnson, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Watson supported the deal, and commissioners Elaine Boyer, Kathie Gannon and Rader opposed it.

When the issue comes up again, similar tactics could prevent a final decision on the YMCA issue until May’s southeast DeKalb seat is filled, Ellis’ September trial is completed or a commissioner changes his or her vote.

Video of the meeting is available through DCTV’s website. Public comments begin about one hour and 10 minutes into the video, and the final vote is taken near the two hour and 16 minute mark.

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