For DeKalb, Form Follows Function

July 10, 2013 16:06 pm

by Mike Hassinger · 8 comments

The following is a guest editorial from DeKalb County Commissioners Elaine Boyer and Lee May.

It’s no secret that DeKalb County has seen better days.

Distrust in county government is high and county revenues are at a low. Our school system has been diligently working to regain full accreditation. And a number of new cities have sprung up, purportedly in protest to a lack of county government responsiveness.  Georgia’s third largest county has, as of late, been seen as a hotbed of dysfunction, not unlike the reputation of Congress.

Simply put, DeKalb is at a crossroads and real change is necessary. As form follows function, it’s time to address the government structure of the county in hopes of creating  something that is more responsive, more efficient and less political than what we see today.

DeKalb’s CEO form of government is an anomaly in Georgia – the only one of its kind in all of Georgia’s 159 counties – and taxpayers and civil servants deserve something that works. Exploring a different form of governance is the first step towards that end.

As it’s currently configured, the CEO runs county operations and oversees hiring and firing, while the commission adopts legislation, votes on the budget and establishes zoning guidelines and tax rates. In effect, the commission sets policy and the CEO decides how its carried out. And any commissioner will tell you that the devil is in the details.

DeKalb lawmakers have long spoken out in favor of re-examining DeKalb County’s form of government. This isn’t a novel idea, but one whose time is long overdue.

Dating back to 1994, a study committee by the DeKalb Civic Coalition concluded that the separate executive and legislative branch form of government creates gridlock, is less responsive and reduces accountability.

Recommendations from a senate study committee led to the 2008 passage of SB 52, which gave the Commission the power to set meeting agendas and elect a presiding officer to chair meetings. That was a small step in the right direction, but it did not go far enough.

Accordingly, the Commission went back to the gold dome and formally requested a re-examination of local governance with a resolution in 2010.  In 2012, the Commission voted to request the creation of a charter commission by a margin of 6-1.  Both of these attempts to further examine our structure were thwarted before they could produce results.

There is no question as to whether the CEO form of government has been a continual source of conflict over the last three decades.  There is a reason no other county has adopted this form of government, simply put…it doesn’t work.

Ultimately, the nearly 700,000 residents who call DeKalb home will be the beneficiaries of a more civil, less divisive government. But to get there, we need everyone at the table as good faith partners to tackle this issue.

It’s time for DeKalb to elect a system that’s consistent with counties around the state and across the majority of the nation. Removing this distraction will help leaders focus their efforts and attention where it belongs – on making DeKalb County the single best place to live, work, play and learn not only in Georgia, but across the Country.

Commissioner Lee May, District 5, Presiding Officer

Commissioner Elaine Boyer, District 1

Andisheh Nouraee July 10, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Can you give examples of how you think the functioning of county’s government would improve if we scrapped the CEO model? As two people watching this from up-close, I’m curious to know how you think the CEO model has has made some of our current problems worse?

George Chidi July 10, 2013 at 4:42 pm

(Of all the gin joints …)

George Chidi July 10, 2013 at 4:37 pm

A few months ago, I found myself at a DeKalb County political breakfast with my county commissioner, and I expressed my concern that the county government had been doing a terrible job at reacting effectively and positively toward the incorporation movement.

The stock reply has been to blame some combination of racism and the CEO form of government for the ills of county government. It’s infuriating.

Note that I’m not hostile to incorporation in principle: I live in Pine Lake, the tiniest incorporated city in Metro Atlanta, one that critics often suggest should turn in its charter, one with absurd taxes … whose citizens would probably burn their homes to the ground before returning to unincorporated status, such is our sense of community.

But I’m not stupid either. The incorporations threaten the quality of the services we do receive from county government. A change in form would be a welcome step toward talking people in Lakeside and Tucker off the ledge. These negotiations need to be active, damn it. The county government needs to be making offers and hearing counter-offers about service levels, tax policy and resource allocation to the communities threatening to leave. If incorporation is ultimately a political power play for better parks and more cops … well, politics ain’t beanbag. The search for a mutually-satisfactory agreement should have started right when Brookhaven started making noises, to keep the dominoes from cascading.

However … all of this is moot if no one from the DeKalb legislative delegation is willing to propose legislation to change the CEO form of government. As Howard Mosby, the house delegation leader, told me a few months ago when I asked him why no one had made the proposal so many county commissioners seem to want, is that the form of government is ultimately less important than the quality of the people leading it.

I think I’m with you on this one, Lee. But tell us why, really, that the legislative delegation seems so reluctant to give you a hand.

Dave Bearse July 10, 2013 at 9:56 pm

The cat may out of the bag. Brookhaven is yet again seeking to cherry pick commercial property at the expense of the county and it’s adjacent unincorporated neighbors:

http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/residents-urge-against-brookhaven-annexation/nYgGP/

Here’s the first paragraph in event the link is behind a paywall: “Two citizen groups have asked Brookhaven not to annex the Century Center office complex into its borders, over fears of leaving residents in their area without annexation options of their own.”

bgsmallz July 12, 2013 at 5:40 pm

#1- To George’s point…The idea that somehow I wanted to be in a city instead of unincorporated DeKalb because I’m racist or because I don’t like the CEO form of government is insulting to everyone.

But it is a solid point that the services DeKalb can provide are possibly threatened. But I’m not sure how much of that is the fault of the ‘new’ cities or how much is because of DeKalb’s own special dis-function. (Note that the #1 financial issue facing the county government is pension plans….has been talked about for at least 6 years…I’ve heard Boyer, Gannon, Lee May, Burrell Ellis and others personally speak about the issue at meetings….and in the middle of the recession, when it was the time to reform, the CEO gave early retirement and then replaced those people with…wait for it…new hires in the pension program. #facepalm) Frankly, getting rid of the CEO is a good first step…ok, a great first step…but one of the key issues no one seems to be addressing is whether DeKalb should continue to function like a city without being a city. The services you are describing are defined as ‘municipal services’ in the GA Constitution. They allowed those who didn’t want to be in a city to be pretend cities. And it worked for a while…until these areas stopped looking like sparse counties and were developed into dense populated areas that look like cities. Anyway, is it time to admit that there is no benefit to pretend cities? That’s what DeKalb is…a fake city. It creates inefficiencies everywhere…from trying to cover 270 square miles to the fact that it probably should be the beneficiary of franchise fees. (the presumption is that ‘county’ residents are ‘rural’ and thus the county government doesn’t receive franchise fees from the utilities…despite the fact that county residents pay a good chunk of franchise fees to the utilities) What really needs to be done IMO…rather than waste time fixated on the CEO position, we need to get on with the business of incorporating most of the county and getting the county out of the business of being a pretend city. That’s the legislative mistake that needs to be fixed. I’d suggest a 10 year plan for putting the county back in charge of its constitutional duties and transitioning most municipal services like fire, parks, zoning, public works, etc. to cities. That’s probably a bit ambitious…but it’s what I think, if anyone cares.

Side note: (DeKalb’s response to the Brookhaven movement was to stonewall with ‘if you’re so unhappy, tell us how we can make it better’ while at the same time there is a whole string of emails within the CEO’s office about how Murphey Candler park has been afoul of environmental regulations because of erosion for years, everyone knows it, and rather admitting it, is there a way for it to be a photo-op for the CEO if it actually gets fixed. The arrogance of Kathie Gannon’s office to write a letter asking ‘tell me what’s wrong’ while her staffer is writing internal emails describing the awful condition of the park is something that still sits with me .)

#2- To Dave’s typical baloney, the property owner is asking to be annexed. Let’s pause and think about that…the property owners submitted an application to be annexed. To somehow claim that the city of Brookhaven is ‘seeking to cherry pick’ is the definition of allowing your own personal bias to cloud the facts. BTW-maybe if those citizen groups and the council in Chamblee had spent more time talking to the property owners about the benefits of Chamblee instead of writing bogus op-eds (I’m looking at you Tom “I’m all for self detemination as long as it benefits Chamblee” Hogan) and taking pot shots about/at people in Brookhaven, maybe they wouldn’t be in this situation.

sockpuppet July 10, 2013 at 5:49 pm

The CEO model doesn’t work in DeKalb, but it is debatable whether the alternative would produce better results. The CEO model works fine if a generally unified and astute community produces a consensus, qualified CEO. But divided communities where a large percentage of the population consistently makes regrettable choices for its leaders (see school board, DeKalb) could result in a situation where abandoning the CEO model could result in more dysfunction, not less and worse leadership, not better. One of the real leadership issues is DeKalb is that it is an urban area with no central or most prominent city to produce an influential mayor. Normally you see that in the suburbs, but Marietta in Cobb, Norcross in Gwinnett and even some of the cities in some of the outlying areas are more prominent than any one in DeKalb. Who is the mayor of Decatur? Exactly. The CEO of DeKalb in a way wound up playing the same role that the mayor of a county’s biggest urban center would. Again, eliminate that and the result is less leadership, not more.

It stinks that the last 2 DeKalb CEOs have had ethics problems, but perhaps the way to fix that would be a better way of selecting the CEO. Make it a position appointed by the council instead of elected, but let it retain the same independence (i.e. the council would not have the ability to remove the CEO at will) and power.

Chris Huttman July 10, 2013 at 11:36 pm

I couldn’t name the mayor in most of the cities in the other counties, I think that has nothing at all to do with this. I can’t tell you who the mayor of Decatur was when Manuel Maloof ran DeKalb, or Lianne Levitan, or Vernon Jones…your point?

Progressive Dem July 10, 2013 at 11:37 pm

The CEO form of government works fine in dozens of counties across the country. The problem in DeKalb isn’t the form of government; it is incompetent leadership. Why would anyone believe that giving the Board of Commissioners more authority is an improvement? Lee May filed for bankruptcy after securing county backed financing for a small business and Elaine Boyer’s County Commission wages have been garnished to pay for family debts. These are two of three people running the Finance Committee. The third is Sharron Barnes Sutton, who was arrested for check kiting. Yes, by all means give these people more authority to run the county. Brilliant! At least the current form of government has some checks and balances to keep the incompetence at bay.

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