DeKalb County’s newly sworn in interim CEO plans to use the powerful post to push to for its elimination.
Lee May told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday that he wants to rally county commissioners and present a united front to state lawmakers, who could change the county’s charter, later this summer.
“The problems you’ve seen over the past few years are not new problems,” May said of power struggles between the CEO and commission. “They’ve been problems that this form of government innately produced.”
Gov. Nathan Deal elevated May to CEO late Tuesday, suspending Burrell Ellis as he fights a 15-count indictment.
DeKalb is the only county in Georgia with an elected executive who runs daily operations. More common — and favored by critics such as May — is a county-manager system in which a professional administrator handles daily government operations. Neighboring Gwinnett and Fulton operate under those systems.
DeKalb’s model has long drawn scrutiny, which intensified when Ellis was indicted last month on felony charges of theft, extortion and conspiracy.
Ellis is alleged to have pressured county vendors to contribute to his political campaign and used county staffers to compile the list of what companies to call.
The county’s charter, called an organizational act, may play a role in those allegations. It expressly prohibits the commission from adopting a purchasing policy that would clearly lay out rules for the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts the county handles yearly.
Instead, it awards the CEO with the power to develop all purchasing rules, without outside oversight.
“It’s not just a matter of efficiency. It’s a matter of accountability,” Commissioner Jeff Rader said.
Rader and five of the six remaining commissioners have previously adopted resolutions calling for a change in the DeKalb government model. State lawmakers, though, have held off because Ellis disagreed with the change.
Those officials would consider some changes, if not a full overhaul, if DeKalb’s CEO and commission could agree on a proposal, said state Rep. Howard Mosby, who heads the county’s House delegation.
“I don’t want to get knee jerked into a decision,” said Mosby, who favors a CEO system. “But I do want us to have a conversation about DeKalb government and delivering services the best we can to citizens.”
May said the changes to the county charter will not take precedence over the same concerns about government services. He met with county department heads Wednesday morning, hoping to calm nerves about potential changes and lay out his service goals.
May said he plans no immediate staffing changes but will be “observing” if positions need to be eliminated or shuffled.
In addition to polling commissioners on a legislative agenda, May also is asking staff members for input into the 2014 budget. The process to develop that spending plan will begin next month, after the county approved a final 2013 budget on Tuesday.
Key elements in any budget proposal will be the same issues May raised during his four years as commission budget chair: a five-year spending plan by department, a boost to county savings and specific plans for outsourcing.
He also plans to push for a one-time 3 percent pay bonus for all county police officers, firefighters, marshals and sheriff’s deputies.
A resolution calling for the CEO to offer that payment to all sworn personnel earning up to $60,000 a year was one of May’s last votes on the commission Tuesday.
May voted in favor then, saying Wednesday he must now shift gears to find out how to make that and other proposals happen.
“I’m an idea guy,” May said of his calls for change. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”
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 that would eliminate the CEO job, in favor of a professional manager.
Also Wednesday, May said he is waiting on an opinion from the county attorney if he must step down from his commission seat to serve as interim CEO.
Ellis is scheduled to be arraigned July 29.