Moderated by Rick Badie
Some DeKalb County commissioners say having paid full-time commissioners might help root out the potential for corruption in the state’s third-largest county. Today, a former DeKalb school board member calls for a county manager type of government. A current DeKalb commissioner opines about government reform.
Hire a county manager
By Paul Womack
Since leaving the DeKalb County School Board in January — with some help from voters — I have made a concerted effort to withhold comment on public policy, especially in my home county. Recent discussion is causing me to break that silence.
Our public servants and leaders in county government, elected and appointed, come from a broad cross section of our community. They include business people, activists, lawyers, educators and others. Each can bring a different perspective to governing. We would hope they share one character trait: integrity.
We nominate and elect members of our community who we hope can make a difference. On the DeKalb County Commission and prior DeKalb School Board, recent grand jury and criminal investigations have found numerous alleged instances of interference and preferential treatment of county vendors and bidders and, at best, questionable decision-making practices.
Some current county commissioners suggest that to improve the ethical environment and reduce corruption and illicit influence in the selection of county vendors and contracts, a good first step would be to make the county commission posts and pay full-time.
Our nation’s founders saw and practiced the policy of part-time lawmaking and governance by part-time public servants, who then returned to their farms, businesses, law practices, etc. This structure gave us the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, and established the federal government and system of checks and balances that serve us today.
In the private and public sectors, higher compensation can draw better talent; but a bigger paycheck cannot and does not guarantee morality, integrity or sound decision-making. Nor does higher pay raise the bar for ethical behavior.
Having served two terms on the DeKalb School Board, including stints as chairman, finance chair and vice chairman, I can state that I was never in those roles for pay. The time and hours spent on those civic engagements often cost me more in business than an entire year’s board member’s salary. We do not need elected leaders who seek a paycheck.
Though many view the Congress as a part-time job, members of the Senate and House are in fact employed year-round, as are their staffs. I remain a supporter of the system we have here in Georgia, where legislators are compensated for part-time work, and their legislative calendars are limited to 40 days a year.
In DeKalb County government, as well as our legislative delegation, considerable support appears to be building for a full-time county manager/county commission structure of local government, already in place in the majority of our 159 counties. If we are going to make such a shift from part time to full time, I’d rather start with a full-time county manager, overseen by seven part-time commissioners, than the other way around.
Paul Womack is a former DeKalb County School Board member.
Reform DeKalb government
By Elaine Boyer
Elected officials, pundits and several grand juries can agree on one thing: DeKalb County’s form of government is broken and has been since Manuel Maloof left office in 1992. Some would say even before then. This is not meant to impugn the character of elected officials who have held the CEO office over the years. But unless our form of government changes, the amount of time spent, whether full time or part time, is irrelevant. Even the best people cannot exact good government in a flawed system.
In 2004, my good friend and fellow commissioner, Dr. William C. “Bill” Brown, wrote a piece entitled, “Democratize the Structure of the Government of DeKalb County.” Years later, we are still having the same issues because of the CEO’s absolute power under DeKalb’s Organizational Act. Many of our citizens may not know that DeKalb is the only county in Georgia with an elected CEO. Nowhere in Georgia does any other county government invest as much power in a single office with broad authority for managing daily operations.
At one time, DeKalb County was structured similar to other suburban counties. This was changed in a grand experiment in 1985. Almost all power was vested in the CEO’s office. The CEO was anticipated to be Manuel Maloof, who was adept and knowledgeable about government operations. No one really understood how much power would be instilled, unchecked, into one person. This miscalculation has had disastrous long-term consequences for DeKalb that include a bloated government, operational inefficiencies, high taxes and infighting.
Brown described DeKalb’s governance as “a dictator/czarist model.” Under the current system, commissioners, who bear the brunt of complaints, have no control over the budget or daily operations. Yet residents expect their locally elected representatives to be advocates on their behalf.
Brown’s metaphor was as accurate then as it is now. It should be pointed out that Brown originally supported the CEO government system. In 2003, there was another series of grand jury investigations into the workings of DeKalb. They reached the same conclusion that the recent grand jury did: DeKalb’s government is broken and needs to be fixed. The question we should ask is, how would the citizens of DeKalb be best served?
We are currently in the throes of the exact scenario that Brown predicted almost a decade ago: “Remember and heed the following words of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most distinguished theologians of the 20th century: ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Therefore, at some point in the future, there will likely be a CEO who will prove this adage to be correct.”
If you are a DeKalb citizen, this is a call to action to appeal to your House or Senate representative for reformation of DeKalb’s government. The time for change is now.
Elaine Boyer is the District 1 DeKalb County Commissioner.