The call came mid-afternoon Tuesday: Gov. Nathan Deal for Lee May.
May, head of the DeKalb County Commission, was the choice of Democrats and Republicans alike who spent the better part of the day under the Gold Dome lobbying for the replacement for the county’s indicted CEO, Burrell Ellis.
The governor had already decided to suspend Ellis, who is facing 14 felony charges of extortion, theft and conspiracy for allegedly pressuring county vendors to contribute to his re-election campaign.
The phone call was meant to assure Deal, a Republican reluctant to step into a local battle, that May was the right choice, according to sources familiar with the conversation.
One of the first questions: Would May, a vocal critic of the CEO form of government, be willing to change that model?
“There was no litmus test,” May said after the governor tapped him as interim CEO. “We discussed our views on the CEO system but also the need for change. I think people in DeKalb County are really ripe for change.”
May has said he will work with county commissioners to put elimination of the CEO job on the county’s legislative agenda for the state lawmakers to take up in January. May might no longer be in the office by then, if Ellis successfully petitions the governor for his job back under state rules or is cleared at a trial.
So for now, May is focusing on preparing the county’s 2014 budget and rounding out the legislative wish list.
Just minutes into his new role last week, May sat down with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the historical CEO office one floor away from the county commission offices, where he is working instead of taking over Ellis’ office in a nearby building. May spoke about about his goals.
AJC: What will be your priorities in taking over the top job?
May: “We have to focus on the day-to-day stuff. We have to make sure we’re still picking up the trash, that we’re filling the potholes, that police services are responding in a timely manner. The things that taxpayers spend their money on and expect a return as a result. Beyond that, I know two things will be my priorities: Putting together the budget and our legislative priorities.”
AJC: Talk specifically about those two priorities.
May: “This will be my budget and I want to emphasize ways to do what we do more efficiently. That means five-year projections, increased reserves and examining if there are ways we can use outsourcing to deliver services. I also think we need to find the funding to hire more police officers, give our employees a raise and improve our county’s gateway entrances and focus on economic development. The legislative agenda will be developed with the commission, to look at issues like the form of government, how to address the new cities and also how we can secure more funding for transportation and development.”
AJC: We’ve reported on a series of bankruptcies stemming from your failed effort to run a movie theater near Lithonia. You shielded yourself from nearly $1 million in debt from the bankruptcies, but also lost your home in the process. You said that helped you understand the struggles of taxpayers. What do you say to that scrutiny?
May: “In public service, that (scrutiny) comes with the territory. There are financial issues from businesses that I ran. I have never shied away from my history, nor will I apologize for it, either. You just deal with it and move forward. My responsibility as CEO is to ensure residents have the highest quality of services delivered to them.”
AJC: Days before his suspension, Ellis launched the first meeting of a task force to examine how the county could brace itself for the likelihood that new cities and more annexations would eat away at commercial properties. Will you continue that work?
May: “I need to review just what was done. We clearly must put forth a plan to address incorporation and annexation in DeKalb. They affect our revenue. They affect our services. They affect our citizens. We have to work through that together for the benefit of everyone. But I don’t know what that is yet. This has been a whirlwind for me. More clarity will come as time progresses.”
AJC: What message do you have for county taxpayers?
May: “We have shown ourselves to be a strong county; a resilient county. We are battle tested, I like to say. Rest assured the best is yet to come for our county. We are going to move forward together.”
Occupation: Political consultant and author, “My God, My Politics”
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Clark Atlanta University; master’s degree, divinity, Emory University
Residence: South DeKalb
Family: Wife, Robin; two young daughters
Political Experience: DeKalb County Commissioner since 2006
THE STORY SO FAR
A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on June 18 on 15 criminal counts, 14 of them felonies.
Gov. Nathan Deal, following the recommendation of a three-member panel, removed Ellis from office Tuesday. DeKalb County Commission Presiding Officer Lee May was sworn in as acting CEO hours later.
Wednesday, May said he plans to advocate for changes to the county charter to eliminate the CEO job, in favor of a professional manager. He laid out his priorities for the county in an exclusive interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ellis is scheduled to be arraigned July 29. His attorneys and District Attorney Robert James plan to ask for a trial date at that time.
Ellis’ attorneys have indicated they will press for him to return to office if a trial does not begin by September. It will be up to Superior Court Judge Courtney L. Johnson to set a trial date. It will likely be up to the state Court of Appeals to determine if Ellis can retake office or if he will remain suspended as per Deal’s order, until the court case ends or his term expires.
Watch Gov. Deal’s announcement of the Ellis suspension and read a timeline of key dates in the Ellis suspension at MyAJC.com.