Acting DeKalb CEO Lee May on Tuesday held the last of three town hall meetings about changing the county’s form of government. I rather expected May’s meetings to be a slam-dunk, a cheering section for the cause, a revival. I was wrong. There’s trepidation in the field.
May studiously avoided the “c” word — corruption — during his commentary, but I suspect he wants to chuck the CEO because a grand jury report earlier this year cited the strong political executive form as a vector for corruption. Let’s not forget why May is acting CEO; the elected CEO Burrell Ellis is suspended from office after indictment on multiple corruption charges.
As I sat in on discussions with DeKalb residents at a meeting, groups still sounded overwhelmed and confused about how the office works and what might change. Many seem to like the idea of a strong political leader in charge of DeKalb. And a view that changing the nature of the office wouldn’t change the underlying problems of corruption and mismanagement perceived in the county emerged.
The DeKalb legislative delegation also seems resistant to making the change. I sense that’s a mixture of concern — if not contempt — for the quality of the county commissioners left to manage the affairs of state, and fear that the power vacuum would be filled by more dangerous and unpredictable forces.
May himself appears to want to remain receptive and open to new ideas, so he has avoided doing more than stating his position and then stepping back to hear the fray. No one is arguing strongly for the grand jury’s recommendation to be taken seriously.
So I shall.
The corruption problem is real. Campaign finance lay at its root. To run an effective (read: winning) political campaign for the CEO job, a candidate probably needs to raise about $800,000. Ellis wanted a war chest of about $1 million. So, unless the CEO is independently wealthy — as in, someone with $2 million to burn on two elections — you’re going to have to be able to raise boatloads of money from individual donors and the private sector.
According to the indictment and the grand jury report, Ellis was shaking down contractors with the county. He asked people looking to do business with DeKalb to donate $2500 … or $25,000 … to his re-election fund. Those that didn’t do so mysteriously found payments for services rendered delayed by weeks or months, or suddenly cut off from contracting opportunities. Contracts with the county, such as one for ambulance services, were canceled and replaced as an emergency on a no-bid contract basis with firms connected to the CEO.
Meanwhile, in an earlier iteration of the corruption, other people appear to have been forming entirely fake companies to win contracts from the county, then sloughing off the work on a subcontractor while keeping a cut. Some of that cut would go to friends of Vernon Jones. Companies would be told that they needed to hire Jones’ associates as “political business development consultants” at six-figure rates to win contracts. All of this resulted in inflated costs for the county.
Lee May plans to ask the legislature to change the county charter so that procurement power comes from “the governing authority” i.e. the commission. That would be a start. But will that take hiring and firing power away from the CEO over, say, finance? Or inspections?
All of this corruption is possible because one person — the CEO — has hiring and firing authority for the staff that sits on the RFP committees, cuts the checks to contractors, inspects work sites, et cetera. By design, there is no meaningful check on that authority. And as long as the CEO can tell someone who works for him to get in between a contractor and a check, the CEO has the power to squeeze people who do business with the county for campaign donations.
So, take away all the hiring and firing power for anyone who touches a contract? OK. But there are three other baskets of cash a manager can chase. Other county employees (donate to my campaign, clerk, or you’re fired), citizens (you want your water turned back on? Here’s the campaign fund envelope …) or the county coffers themselves, straight up. And if you take away the CEO’s authority to hire and fire everyone … then you don’t have a CEO form of government at all any more.
Campaign finance reform would solve most of this problem, of course.
Now, I suppose it’s possible that an honest business person with a couple of million dollars to burn could run for the job. But frankly, anyone with that kind of money is unlikely to be meaningfully representative of a majority of DeKalb voters, and we may be trading one kind of corruption for a worse one — where the CEO is using the office to enhance his or her private financial interests.
Suppose instead the CEO were limited to a single term? That might help. But who is to say that shakedown cash wouldn’t simply be sloughed into a PAC or a nonprofit charity controlled by the CEO’s partners?
Ditching the DeKalb CEO for a council-manager form like Cobb or Gwinnett isn’t going to eliminate all corruption, of course. You’re still going to have the potential for bribery and shady land deals. But the kind of criminal behavior for which Ellis has been indicted threatens the economic future of the county in a way that the Gwinnett scandals didn’t.
Gwinnett’s public criminality was an inch wide and a mile deep. The alleged corruption of Kennerly and the proven crimes of Shirley Lasseter involved one or two deals with huge payoffs and the active collusion of private partners.
DeKalb’s corruption, in contrast, appears to be an inch deep and a mile wide. Ellis seems to have hit dozens of firms with demands for campaign contributions. Some of the corruption involved collusion, but much of it appears to have been coercive. And while Lasseter committed a crime of opportunity, Ellis’ indictment and the grand jury report suggests a systemic problem. That’s a qualitative difference.
Imagine the chilling effect that could have on economic development, left unchecked. The way corruption works in Gwinnett, Joe Contractor in Gwinnett doesn’t necessarily have to play dirty to profit. It’s just an option. In DeKalb, Ellis was setting things up for that to be the only option. “So you don’t want to do business in Dekalb County,” Ellis remarked to a contractor that wouldn’t play ball.
The corruption issue has been fueling the municipalization movement in DeKalb — the formation of cities like Lakeside or Briarcliff and the expansion of Clarkston and Stone Mountain as insulation from county government. While the people driving the incorporation of Lakeside and Tucker appear to be fairly active political conservatives, it’s worth noting that the voting pattern of the proposed cities themselves is both racially mixed and politically balanced between Obama and Romney voters. If these areas incorporate, it will be because the county commission lost support from black voters and from Democrats.
I’m supportive of people’s desire for more local control, but the incorporation pattern as it stands threatens to bankrupt the county pension fund, decimate Grady Hospital and eviscerate the county school system. Changing the form of government would be a visible sign to the public that the commission and county legislators take the issue seriously.