Republicans who are a minority within DeKalb County politics have used their majority status in the General Assembly to push forward a bill that would eliminate the county’s unique CEO form of government.
Rep. Meagan Hanson, R-Brookhaven, said she introduced House Bill 961 as a general bill to circumvent a process that requires delegation support for local bills. She said DeKalb's Democratic-controlled delegation has blocked previous attempts to dissolve the elected CEO position and efforts to create a charter review commission to evaluate the county's governance structure has not moved forward either.
Hanson and Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, co-introduced House Bill 961 on Tuesday. When members of the House Governmental Affairs Committee arrived at their meeting on Wednesday, they learned the bill would be up for a vote.
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, is on the committee and voiced her concerns over the way the bill had been fast-tracked without input from most delegation members and CEO Mike Thurmond. Only one of seven commissioners said she was told in advance.
“This is a bill that impacts 800,000 people, and none of those people including the elected officials directly impacted were given the courtesy of any printed notice,” Oliver said after the meeting. “This is the worst kind of partisan stunt that happens late in the session, and it’s very disappointing.”
The bill is now eligible for a vote on the House floor, which must happen by Wednesday for it to be considered by the Senate.
Usually, bills of local impact are approved first by smaller delegations before being added to the General Assembly agenda. Although HB 961 doesn’t require such approval, it only affects DeKalb as the sole Georgia county with an elected CEO. The bill would transfer the CEO’s duties to the chairperson of the county commission at the end of Thurmond’s term in 2020. The commission would then be free to hire a professional county manager to oversee day-to-day operations.
Commissioner Nancy Jester was the only local official to testify during Wednesday’s committee meeting. She said she learned of the bill that morning when Hanson asked her if she would come to the Capitol to share her long-standing opinion that the CEO position should be eliminated.
Jester told the committee that she believes many of the county's issues over the years, including sewage spills and inaccurate water bills, are directly related to this unique form of government. She believes the county would be better served with a professional county manager hired by the commission.
Commissioner Jeff Rader, who serves as presiding officer of DeKalb’s board, said he didn’t know about the bill before the vote occurred. Neither did Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who later questioned Jester’s motives.
“It’s evident to me that this was calculated,” Johnson said. “It was planned. There was manipulation. There definitely was no transparency.”
Thurmond has been credited with helping restore credibility to a position that has seen its ups and downs since Manuel Maloof became DeKalb's first CEO in 1984. During Thursday's meeting of DeKalb's Senate delegation, lawmakers praised Thurmond for presenting a balanced budget, successfully advocating for a SPLOST tax and working to address many of the issues he inherited when he was elected in 2016.
Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, has advocated for eliminating the CEO job in the past but said Thursday that he works well with Thurmond and believes the current CEO has done a good job. Millar said he isn’t sure how he would vote on the bill if it were to pass the House and come before the Senate.
Thurmond said DeKalb residents should be allowed to decide if changes are needed.
“I think we should allow the voters to determine the future direction of our county and our government, not two or three individuals meeting at night under the cover of darkness,” he said.
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