Two and a half months ago, with little warning and no discussion, DeKalb County commissioners voted to give themselves a 60 percent pay raise.
Anticipating the public backlash, DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon made an offer:
“If anyone would like to see what the hours are that I work, I would invite them to spend the week with me.”
That sentiment, that commissioners put in long hours on unheralded work, is one that many of her fellow colleagues agreed with. But what if unconvinced constituents don’t have time to shadow their commissioners for a week, but still want to know how much of their day is spent handling county business?
Partially in response to Gannon’s Feb. 27 remarks, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution submitted an open records request, asking to view board members’ calendars for the three weeks prior.
What the newspaper got back, two months later, would do little to persuade detractors that DeKalb commissioners deserve the substantial salary bump that’s coming. The records show board members do a poor job of documenting their activities on their calendars, making it difficult to track daily activities and the time put in on behalf of the county.
For example, only Gannon’s calendar consistently listed the various subcommittee meetings that require most commissioners to spend the entire day in their offices on Tuesdays.
Nancy Jester, the sole commissioner to vote against the pay increase, said she doesn’t keep a calendar at all. Documentation for only one meeting was included in the records her office provided to the AJC, although she later emailed an overview of how she spends her time on duty.
Commissioner Jeff Rader, who serves as the board’s presiding officer, said the calendars tell only part of the story. They don’t reflect the hours commissioners spend answering phone calls, replying to emails and reviewing documents ahead of committee meetings and zoning hearings, he said.
“One of the thing I think my constituents appreciate is, I can usually speak authoritatively about the issues they’re interested in,” Rader said.
He believes residents shouldn’t judge commissioners by their calendars, but by their ability to work as a body to address the issues in DeKalb. Also, he said, people seem to care less about what commissioners are paid and more about whether they are accessible when an issue or concern arises.
“If I’m not adequately responsive to the public, then they’re probably not going to be satisfied with my performance,” he said.
Rader pointed out that no one signed up to run against him, even though the qualifying period was shortly after the controversial pay raise vote.
The pay proposal was quickly introduced and passed without going through the normal committee review process or even being included on the meeting agenda. There was no discussion or debate before the vote.
The commissioners’ action drew rebukes from constituents and from county employees, who pointed out that the rank-and-file received only 3 percent raises; a state lawmaker tried unsuccessfully to get legislation passed that would make the raises take effect only after commissioners’ next election cycle.
Two commissioners — Gregory Adams and Larry Johnson — face opposition in the upcoming election. Their opponents have criticized them for voting for the salary increase, which takes effect in January.
Even before the February vote, Viola Davis, a community advocate who is now running for a seat on the General Assembly, was critical of commissioners’ earlier efforts to boost their salaries.
Davis said recently that the lack of information about how members are carrying out their duties is one reason why the raises remains problematic.
“We’ve always pushed for transparency, ethics and accountability, and we have pushed for a lot of their information to be placed on the computer — from the way they spend their budgets to just everyday activities that are going on,” Davis said. “The taxpayers can make those requests but, until the elected officials move forward to fulfill it, how can you justify the pay increase?”
Jester said she voted against the raise partially because she doesn’t think the commission made a strong enough case for why it’s warranted.
“I think we need some more accomplishments to show for it,” she said. “If there were to be a pay raise, we need to build consensus in our community about the specifics of exactly why we are asking for it.”
Even assuming all commissioners work eight hours every Tuesday, the most documented hours for any commissioner was 54 over the three-week period examined by the AJC. Two commissioners — Jester and Larry Johnson — provided documentation showing them working 26 hours.
A handwritten log kept at the receptionist area for the commissioners’ offices shows the dates and names of people who arrive for meetings.
During the three-week period, a total of 35 meetings were logged for all seven commissioners, though there’s no note of meetings held away from their offices.
Most commissioners told the AJC that they usually spend at least 40 hours each week on county business, even though it is technically a part-time job. They said those hours and the fact DeKalb commissioners hadn’t seen a substantial increase in pay in years justified boosting their salary from a base of $40,530 to nearly $65,000, which is 35 percent of what superior court judges make.
According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ October 2017 salary report, that figure is well above what other counties in the region pay commissioners. Cobb commissioners make $44,079, and in Gwinnett the salary is $45,000. The pay for Fulton commissioners is $42,910.
The report said two Georgia counties pays commissioners more than what the DeKalb seven will make, but representatives from both counties said the state report was incorrect.
Jester says she generally works from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on days when the Board of Commissioners isn’t meeting. On the Mondays before board meetings, she spends several hours reviewing the agenda for the next day. She also chairs one subcommittee and serves on two others, and said she also spends time with elected officials from the municipalities in her district — Doraville and Dunwoody.
Commissioner Steve Bradshaw said his calendar doesn’t reflect the amount of time he spends preparing for meetings or reading through documents and reports. He also holds events in his district to connect directly with constituents, such as a recent community breakfast attended by more than 80 people.
“What they’re most pleased with is their commissioner is standing there taking their questions,” he said. “Not running. Not ducking. Not hiding. I always say at the end of my remarks that I’m standing right here.”
Back to Gannon’s offer. She said she received a couple of calls, but no one was willing to shadow her for an entire week. But, she said, the offer still stands.