In the fallout from corruption charges against DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, about 140,000 residents have been left without full representation on the county commission for 16 months.
The residents of southeast DeKalb say they fear missing out on park upgrades, road re-pavings, economic development initiatives and land use decisions.
County commissioners have gridlocked for four months on confirming a temporary replacement for Lee May, who represented that part of DeKalb before becoming interim chief executive, taking over for Ellis while his case is pending.
With only five of seven commission seats filled — because of May’s appointment and Commissioner Elaine Boyer’s resignation as she faced criminal charges — it has been difficult to reach consensus. Four votes are required to take any action.
The result is a deeply divided board, made up entirely of Democrats, where the majority doesn’t always rule.
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“The community is suffering, and the commission is the problem. It’s filled with a lot of egos,” said Tamayra Ginyard, the president of a south DeKalb homeowners association. “They need to leave their personal issues aside and do what’s best for the community.”
Commissioners Kathie Gannon and Jeff Rader object to May nominating his own replacement. The other three commissioners argue that May followed the legal process and that southeast DeKalb deserves immediate representation.
“The ideal thing would be to let the people vote for their successor,” Gannon said. “I have to vote my conscience. I have to vote in a way that is best for all of DeKalb County, and that’s how I make my decisions.”
Their infighting has left George Turner, the nominee to represent southeast DeKalb, stuck in the middle.
May chose Turner, the president of a community council that reviews zoning changes in his district, in August from 20 people who applied for the temporary position. The term lasts until the resolution of Ellis’ criminal case or the end of his term in 2016. Charges that Ellis shook down contractors for campaign contributions remain in place following a hung jury in October, resulting in a mistrial.
Turner said his nomination appears to be “hopelessly deadlocked” because Gannon and Rader, who say they have no objection to him, would lose leverage on the board if he were confirmed.
“They’re holding the county hostage. It denies 140,000 people representation,” Turner said. “The fear is that you’d have four votes on the south side that would have control.”
Rader said he wants the commission to have the authority to pick the southeast DeKalb’s temporary representative.
He said May shouldn’t be choosing his own replacement, and that May could end the stalemate if he simply resigned the commission seat he was elected to, triggering a special election. May became the county’s leader when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to succeed Ellis in July 2013.
But Rader’s proposal presents a problem for May: If Ellis is found not guilty or the charges against him dropped, he would retake the CEO position and May would be out of a job.
“I’ve been no more intransigent than my colleagues,” Rader said. “Why do they think they’re right all the time? The county’s trajectory wasn’t very favorable under the previous majority that was there.”
May is calling for commissioners to end the impasse.
“Not having a full complement of commissioners has been very disruptive,” May said. “Frankly, the two dissenting commissioners — you know who they are — have more power now than their whole tenure on the board. I don’t think they want to give up their power.”
While representation for southeast DeKalb is in the hands of politicians, voters will decide in Tuesday’s runoff election who will fill the board’s north DeKalb vacancy created by Boyer’s resignation. Boyer pleaded guilty to bilking taxpayers of more than $93,000.The winner of that race, between former DeKalb school board member Nancy Jester and retired state government employee Holmes Pyles, could become the swing vote on the commission.
Southeast DeKalb residents do have some representation from their super district commissioner, Stan Watson, who represents about 350,000 people in the entire eastern half of the county. But the area lacks a commissioner who advocates specifically for their needs.
Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said voters should be outraged that their right to government representation has been denied for so long.
“It’s all political games and dirty politics,” Sutton said. “It’s a power grab, and they’re doing it at the expense of the people in District 5. I’m just surprised we don’t see people up in arms and out there protesting.”
Wendall Ervin, who lives in southeast DeKalb, said he’s worried that his community’s needs aren’t getting attention without someone speaking up for the area on issues like planning and zoning.
“I’m alarmed that there’s no representative. Every district should have the same voice,” Ervin said. “I’m concerned that District 5’s needs are being pushed down in importance.”