For a quarter-century now, DeKalb County’s unique governing structure has been a cause of controversy and division. County commissioners have complained about it, legislators have expressed frustration about it and neighborhood activists have argued that it invested too much unchecked authority in the office of the county CEO.
For much of that time, the main defender of the structure has been the person actually serving as county CEO. And because the system invested that person with so much influence, he or she has always been able to fend off attempts at changing it. The problem precluded its own solution.
That has now changed, at least for temporarily, and critics are rushing to take advantage of the opportunity.
Earlier this week, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis was suspended from office after a ruling that his indictment on corruption charges rendered him unable to perform his duties. To fill the vacuum, Gov. Nathan Deal has appointed Lee May, presiding officer of the county commission, to serve as interim CEO.
May has previously been a critic of the CEO system, and he has indicated that he intends to continue to push to eliminate the position that he now holds temporarily. Such a change of the county charter would require a vote by a majority of the county’s legislative delegation and then a confirmation of that vote by the entire Legislature.
I’m not a great fan of the DeKalb CEO system, which was basically designed by and for the legendary Manuel Maloof, the first person to fill that role. It’s rarely a good idea to build enduring government structures around the personality of a single man or woman. In addition, the system has been a source of controversy for so long that it may be time to remove it as an irritant.
However, abolishing the office of CEO and returning DeKalb to a more traditional system — with a professional county manager appointed and overseen by an elected commission — might not be the fix that its advocates imagine. To the contrary, it might even backfire, unleashing a whole new batch of issues and stresses that would make governance even more complicated and difficult.
It’s no secret that DeKalb County is fractured along political, racial, geographic and socio-economic lines. Under its strong-CEO system, however, a lot of those stresses and competing interests have been suppressed to a degree. For better or worse, power and responsibility that is now invested in one elected person would be decentralized and spread among members of the commission, who would be forced to find compromises to make the system work. In addition, the never-ending power struggle between the county commission and the CEO under the current system has often given commission members a common enemy to unite against. In a more traditional system, more of their anger and irritation would be directed at each other.
You don’t have to wander far to find an example of that danger. Neighboring Fulton County has a system much like that being advocated in DeKalb, and ironically, one option being advocated to address its dysfunction is to give the Fulton commission chairman considerably more power.
And of course, school boards also operate under the elected commission/professional manager model, and in DeKalb and elsewhere, that’s hardly been a guarantee of good governance. In other words, if you’re looking to structure as your problem, you may be looking in the wrong place.