DeKalb seeking input on changing form of government

The question of whether, and how much, DeKalb County should overhaul its government structure will get some answers by year’s end.

Interim CEO Lee May announced Friday that the county will host three community meetings, guided by a North Carolina college professor, to get input on whether the only county in Georgia to operate under an elected executive should change.

Just days after Gov. Nathan Deal elevated him to the interim post after suspending CEO Burrell Ellis this summer, May said he favored eliminating the CEO job. He has since tempered those comments, saying he wants a “dialogue” on the issue.

“I think people are hungry for change now because they want better outcomes,” May said. “We have an opportunity to make sure we have something better than what we have, but whatever that is, it will take substantive work.”

DeKalb is the only county in Georgia with an elected executive who runs daily operations. More common — and favored for years by May and a majority of the county commission — is a county manager system in which a professional administrator handles daily government operations.

Neighboring Gwinnett and Fulton operate under that system, as does Cobb, the county closest in size to DeKalb.

The issue has long been a topic of conversation among insiders. But discussions ramped up when Ellis was indicted in June 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 companies to call. He also is accused of punishing those who did not give money.

A special grand jury that looked into allegations of corruption and kickbacks on county contracts said the CEO form of government was partly to blame. The jury’s report concluded the system gave too much power, and temptation, to a single person.

Likewise, 82 percent of registered voters contacted in a poll this summer said they believed the county was headed in the wrong direction or needed change.

More than 60 percent of those in the poll, conducted by HEG-Apache Political for the Stone Mountain Community Improvement District, said they would pick a professional manager over an elected CEO if given a choice.

The County Commission has voted for that change for two years but the request has fallen on deaf ears at the Legislature, where a vote of approval is needed to amend the county’s charter.

County Commissioner Jeff Rader, often an ally of Ellis, said he agreed that a community conversation could help focus the issue.

He and Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton both recently said they would support a closer to look at the role the CEO’s job has played in the county’s struggles even though they have differed in the past on whether to eliminate the job.

“It’s reasonable, I think, to want a change but I think we also want to make sure that we’re deliberative about what change we make,” said Rader, who has voted in the past for making the change.

State Rep. Howard Mosby, the Atlanta Democrat who heads the county’s delegation, has long said he prefers the elected CEO model.

He and other state lawmakers also had mixed signals from the county since Ellis, and the CEO before him, and the commission could not agree on the issue when lobbying.

With renewed attention on the issue, Mosby has pledged he will support at least some changes to the county charter that would reduce the power of the CEO. But he has stopped short of saying whether he would back any effort to switch the county structure.

Kimberly Nelson, a professor of public administration at the University of North Carolina, will lead the upcoming meetings to try to shape a community consensus.

Nelson, who was recommended by the state’s association of counties, is an expert on local government management. Her job will be to explain the different forms of government and guide discussions.

Once those sessions are done, she will present her findings in a report for May to share with commissioners.

County leaders could use that as a blueprint when making their case under the Gold Dome when lawmakers convene in January.

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