DeKalb CEO Lee May led county in time of crisis

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May delivers his State of the County speech at Thalia N. Carlos Hellenic Community Center on March 10. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May delivers his State of the County speech at Thalia N. Carlos Hellenic Community Center on March 10. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The sign outside county government headquarters in Decatur never listed Lee May as DeKalb’s CEO.

Though he did the job for almost four years, it was never really his.

He was always the stopgap chief executive for a county in crisis, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in July 2013 after CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted.

Though he never shook the interim title, May said he left his mark as an executive who helped stabilize a county government shaken by criminal prosecutions, corruption scandals and loss of residents’ trust.

He hopes DeKalb's newly elected CEO, Mike Thurmond, has a much less tumultuous term.

“We’ve been getting more and more of these ethical and other investigations behind the county,” May said. “As quickly as we can get that in our rear-view mirror, we can just focus on governance and working on behalf of the people.”

Before May became the county’s CEO, he was a 38-year-old commissioner representing southeast DeKalb.

Afterward, he was the easiest person to blame for the county's problems, including numerous allegations of government incompetence and fraud.

“He was faced with many unfortunate issues with honesty and integrity,” said Liane Levetan, who was DeKalb’s CEO from 1993 to 2000. “He has done as good a job performance as possible. … He was thrust into a situation that maybe he didn’t expect to be in.”

May lists many changes during his tenure that he says strengthened DeKalb.

Government employees received raises this year. Property tax rates went down slightly. He quashed a purchasing card scandal by restricting their use by officials.

He supported overhauls of DeKalb's Board of Ethics, as well as the county's auditing process, purchasing policies and economic development board.

“It’s not that he achieved every goal, but he acquitted himself well by being accessible, open and transparent,” Thurmond said. “He’s prepared for the county to move to the next level on this journey of restoring trust and confidence.”

Several of May's key proposals didn't come to pass. He fell short on efforts to build a soccer practice field for Atlanta United, construct a new government building and raise sales taxes to pay for repaving hundreds of miles of pothole-filled roads.

Despite failing to achieve those goals, May said he laid the groundwork for success.

Land near the DeKalb Jail that would have been used for the soccer complex has been cleared and can be redeveloped. The county will still need a government building at some point. And the sales tax proposal will be reconsidered next year.

His biggest regret is that he couldn’t build consensus among DeKalb commissioners, who frequently deadlocked on spending and construction decisions.

Commissioner Nancy Jester, who at one point called on May to resign following a report on government corruption, said she was disappointed he was slow to recognize the severity of countywide problems with high residential water bills. But she praised him for choosing competent department directors.

“He grew into the role,” Jester said. “Over the last couple of years, I think he’s made some good decisions that will pay dividends later.”

One of May's defining moments came when he ordered a sweeping investigation to expose misconduct and restore public confidence.

The effort backfired when the investigators, Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde, targeted May for hindering the investigation. He denies that accusation, though he did stop the inquiry as its costs approached $1 million.

The investigation's report last year said May should step down, alleging he received a loan from an aide in violation of the county's charter. The aide, Morris Williams, and contractor Doug Cotter are now facing criminal charges for allegedly stealing $4,000 in public money after the county paid to repair damage from a raw sewage backflow in May's home.

May denied taking a loan or any other wrongdoing. He has said he was the victim of a scheme to defraud the government.

“I’ve tried to operate — in this world of chaos and turmoil — with the highest level of integrity that I could,” May said. “Even when people feel skeptical about politics and politicians and government, I wanted them to be confident in the leader they had serving them.

May is preparing to move from politics to the pulpit. He's working to start up Transforming Faith Church, where he will serve as pastor for a small flock that will initially gather in a local high school.

He’s already quoting Bible verses from the books of James (“Faith without works is dead”) and Romans (“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”), saying he hopes to lead his church by example.

“People don’t care about what you say. They care about what you do,” said May, who has a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University. “That’s the same thing that God desires for us, and that’s how we want to operate as a church and even in politics.”

May, who was first elected to the DeKalb Commission in a 2006 special election to succeed U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, said he wants to be remembered for guiding the county through a time of uncertainty.

“DeKalb County needs a restart,” May said. “If we could almost forget some of the things in the past and say the slate is clean, now we can work together. … The best is yet to come for the future of DeKalb County.”