DeKalb County may be getting ready for a government do-over — again.
Acting County CEO Lee May and four commissioners indicated at a news conference Thursday that a revolution, or at least a minor coup, could well be afoot while suspended CEO Burrell Ellis is facing a corruption trial.
A special grand jury, whose work helped lead to Ellis’ indictment, concluded in a scathing report that opportunities for corruption abound in DeKalb’s CEO form of government.
May said commissioners were directing the county executive assistant, Zach Williams, to review that report and make recommendations in 30 days about whether to change the government and how. Williams is also to look into the accusations against certain county employees and recommend action against them.
The commissioners and May stopped short of saying how the government should be changed — although May has recommended doing away with the elected CEO post — but said it needed to be seriously tweaked or upended altogether as the grand jury recommended.
Commissioners said any changes should include mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability to restore public confidence.
“Our government form right now depends on the expertise and integrity of individuals, and this is unchecked by any other means,” said Commissioner Jeff Radar. “Contracts can be manipulated to where the recommendation the commission is given is a cooked recommendation.”
Most county governments in metro Atlanta are overseen by an elected commission, which hires a county manager to run daily operations. The organizing legislation for the DeKalb government said the executive assistant was to have the qualifications of a county manager. Williams, who reports to the CEO and to the commission, was county manager for Fulton County.
But DeKalb’s executive assistant, who is also the chief operating officer, has been second fiddle to the elected CEO, who functions similarly to a strong mayor but has the added power of being a tie-breaker in commission votes and can veto legislation. It takes five votes on the 7-member commission to override the veto.
The DeKalb CEO also has more power over contracts and more de facto power to move budget funds from one department to another without the commission’s approval. Such actions have prompted conflicts with the commission. Spokesman Burke Brennan said organizing legislation made the budget a “gray area.”
The position was created decades ago at the urging of then-commission chairman Manuel Maloof, a legendary figure in DeKalb politics. Former CEO Liane Levetan said the switch was largely to bar the chairman from voting on zoning, which “activists” saw as a conflict of interest.
But divided government eventually sparked in-fighting. “It created a form of government for a particular person and we have been living with the consequences of that,” said Commissioner Elaine Boyer.
Restrictions the commission has put on the CEO’s power in the past have been limited, most notably ending his power to preside over commission meetings and to control the legislation on the agenda.
The grand jury’s report says the CEO form of government “provides too many opportunities for fraudulent influences and fosters a culture that is overly politicized and in which appropriate business relationships are created.”
DeKalb’s legislative delegation has long been divided over changing the CEO setup, but there is some bipartisan support for change.
“It’s time to change the CEO form of government and I think there will be political support for a change at this time,” state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur said Thursday.
Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said DeKalb has been plagued by infighting in its government a long time.
“Starting with Manuel Maloof, who was a benevolent despot, and I don’t say that unkindly, it’s been constant fighting, constant lawsuits and bickering,” said Millar. Maloof was CEO from 1985 to 1992. Millar said he expected legislation to be drafted to move the county toward the more professional county manager system.
But county manager systems are also subject to politics and see their share of corruption, as scandals plaguing Gwinnett County show.
“Look at Gwinnett County, with the county chair and they have their problems,” said Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “Any system can be bent by unscrupulous people or bad-minded people.”
“What would be the difference?” state Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, chairman of the DeKalb County delegation, said. “Anytime, you can have bad individuals in any stage that will create a situation where the county manager and county commission chairman got together and collude and defraud the public.”
Mosby said he supports strengthening the commission and weakening the CEO position to even out the checks and balances, but he said the elected position provides more transparency to voters than a system in which powerful commissioners can influence a manager behind the scenes.