DeKalb Government: CEO, county manager or full-time commissioners?

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.


6 comments Add your comment

SAWB

September 19th, 2013
4:03 pm

While I agree that in almost any situation be it public or private any organization can benefit by eliminating layers of bureaucracy. So, abolishing the CEO position seems to make sense for DeKalb. However, their biggest issue isn’t their organizational structure, but the quality of individual in their organization.

Don't Tread

September 19th, 2013
12:41 pm

It doesn’t really matter what form of leadership is in place in DeKalb – the same people are voting for them that voted in the last corrupt bunch. Look at the school board debacle which has been (temporarily) fixed by the governor.

DeKalb government is very broken. Changing the number of officials running it won’t do anything.

MrLiberty

September 19th, 2013
12:39 pm

Whether campaign finance “reform”, calls for higher pay, calls for publicly funded campaigns, limits on lobbyist gifts, etc. the suggestions for solving the problem of government corruption always focus on the wrong end of the problem – the money/power going in.

The problem, which everyone seems either too ignorant or too uneasy to point out is with the money and power that government itself has to deliver to others. Why is that so hard to fathom?

Just look at the DeKalb County budget. Every dollar they have is taken from the productive sector of society to fund literally thousands upon thousands of activities that nobody would fund voluntarily were they given the choice. Every activity that folks would fund could easily be handled by competitive businesses operating in a free market and succeeding or failing based on their ability to deliver value and satisfaction to voluntary customers. Real accountability. Real risk. Real uncertainty.

And fundamentally that is what it all gets down to. Uncertainty. A vast majority of folks simply don’t like freedom or the uncertainty that comes with it. They would rather employ the force of government to steal on their behalf, give them contractual guarantees for business, give them regulations that destroy or impede their competitors, give them a one-stop-shop for all the services they “need”, insure that their union members have guaranteed jobs and great benefits, etc. all without having to deal with the uncertainty that comes with the potential for a customer to choose to do business with a competitor.

Of course as consumers, the majority in society suffer greatly. We are subjected to the political decisions that steal our money, take away our choices, regulate away our freedoms, and otherwise impoverish our society. The government-connected businesses don’t care. They prefer to purchase their certainty rather than be concerned about our freedoms.

The root cause is the power and the money the county government has (and all governments for that matter). So the solution MUST be to take away that power and that money. There can be no other fundamental solution as there is no other root cause. If there were no power to throw around and no money to dole out, why would anyone go into politics except to be a good manager and fighter for freedom? Why would anyone contribute to a candidate except because they believed them to be a supporter of citizen freedom? Why would a lobbyist ever even show up at a legislator’s office at all?

But the media and others benefit greatly as well from the status quo so they will NEVER voice such opinions. Frankly the republican and democratic parties benefit tremendously from all of this power. That’s why it has been up to folks like the Libertarian and Constitution parties to speak out for truly smaller, less powerful government and the return of government services to a competitive private sector market.

We already know the solutions. The question is whether or not we as a society still have the courage to face the hard truths that government should never have been given this much power or this much money and that private individuals, acting in response to the market demands of consumers, can address the needs of society in a far more equitable manner than the inherently corrupt government bureaucracy we now suffer under.

DHer

September 19th, 2013
10:46 am

There are lots of issues here and unfortunately the AJC doesn’t want to do anything but scratch the surface. Aren’t these Forward Atlanta discussions intended to promote community discussion and build broad consensus for reform and change along the lines of the original Atlanta Chamber of Commerce Forward Atlanta campaign? Previous recent discussions about transportation and immigration and had differing views. In this instance, we are treated to a few dumbed down headlines about changing the form of government as if that is the only solution, and it will fix all of the problems in DeKalb. Some facts and context would be helpful and perhaps some differing ideas. Moreover, the AJC through its rather gratuitous headline seems to have twisted the thrust of Paul Womack’s article away from his central point that the Commissioners should be part-time. He writes 8 paragraphs about part-time versus full-time elected officials and in the last paragraph brings up the CEO/Commission structure of government.

The AJC Fact Checker frequently dings politicians for not providing context. They are usually classified as “half-truths”. So when Commissioner Boyer writes, “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” – there is some context needed. Of the roughly 3,000 counties in the United States, more than 700 have some form of an elected chief executive. This form of government was not invented for DeKalb by Manual Maloof. It is used throughout the United States often in large urban counties such as Prince Georges County, Montgomery County and Baltimore County in Maryland.

Commissioner Boyer ironically uses the well-known quote about absolute power corrupting. Yet a key feature of the CEO/Commission form of government is the checks and balances of authority between the legislative and executive branches. This is a foundation for American democracy and essential in curbing absolute authority and power in state and federal government. When the executive branch is gone in DeKalb County, which branch of local government will check the Board of Commissioners? The District Attorney and Courts, whose budget is set by the Board of Commissioners?

A few more points:
• DeKalb County has a professional county manager that is nominated by the CEO and confirmed by the Board of Commissioners. The various department heads report to him on a daily basis. The Commissioners by design can’t give employees work direction. Imagine 7 commissioners telling a department which pothole to fix first!
• The Board of Commissioners has a lot of authority and the CEO is far from a dictator. The BoC reviews and approves the budget and they set the millage rate and fees for all of county government. They have exclusive authority over land-use and zoning decisions. They are a legislative branch and can establish policies for the County. They must approve every contract and purchase above $50,000.
• The Board of Commissioners has the sole authority to hire an internal auditor. This position could review the finances, contracts and operations of any county department. The Board of Commissioners have never used this authority to monitor county government. Some Commissioners are proposing this position be filled, yet others oppose using this authority. Why?
• The DeKalb Board of Education had a much more significant corruption problem with a form of government that is close to the one suggested by Mr. Womack and Commissioner Boyer. They have a board that hired a superintendant (manager). Yet under this form of government, kickbacks and bribes allegedly took place. Meanwhile according to the SACs report, members of the Board of Education meddled into the day-to-day operations of the schools, influenced hiring decisions and allowed nepotism to run rampant. Gwinnett County has had two members of their Commission convicted of bribery and the chairman resigned in an apparent deal with the district attorney. Corruption can exist in any government. Checks and balances can help.
• Former Commissioner Brown’s treatise on DeKalb government was centered on the inability of the BoC to set its own agenda and run the commission meetings. Reforms to correct those problems were approved and went into effect in 2008.

USC-69

September 19th, 2013
9:25 am

I agree with Mr. Womack – part-time representatives at the local level are all that is indicated. Elaine Boyer – who has been caught with her hand in the cookie jar several times – has lobbied for more money for herself (and less for the county) since she was elected. As part of the Right Wing minority (usually the only one), she has worked hard to defund Grady Hospital and the South DeKalb public schools for her entire career. Any suggestion from Ms. Boyer should always be examined carefully for the long term implications.

Jack ®

September 19th, 2013
8:16 am

Counties don’t need an all-powerful CEO: that kind of arrangement seems to invite corruption. A county manager subject to overview by the board would likely serve the county better.