During eight community meetings over the last month, Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May presented himself in front of crowds of county residents demanding answers about allegations of corruption, ineffective government and his leadership of the county.
He faced critics waving signs that called for him to resign. He explained the hiring of investigators whose final report took aim at him. He brought his case to the people in hopes of regaining their trust.
After his final meeting Thursday at Brookhaven City Hall, May said he heard residents’ concerns and remains committed to improving county government.
“What I’m focused on is efficient delivery of services. That’s priority No. 1 because if you’re not delivering services in an efficient manner, people don’t feel good about their county,” May said. “People want good government, and that’s what I’m charged in doing in this role.”
May launched his “Up Close and Personal” sessions in response to a Sept. 30 report from investigators Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde that alleged “a pattern of corrosive and widespread misconduct” in the county.
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At each meeting, May explained that the $885,000 investigation didn’t live up to his expectations, but he defended his decision to start the investigation as a way of cleaning up problems in DeKalb’s government.
The investigators’ 40-page report said May should step down from the position Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to in July 2013. May replaced CEO Burrell Ellis, who was later found guilty of attempted extortion and perjury.
May said he hasn’t decided whether he would run in next year’s election for a full term as CEO, and he said he would advocate for the Georgia Legislature to eliminate the CEO form of government. Most other counties in Georgia have a county manager who runs daily government operations and reports to the county commission.
May’s first town hall meeting in the series was in front of a lively and crowded room of 300 people in Lithonia; his final session had about 50 people in attendance — some of them county employees.
Residents at the meeting remained divided about May’s leadership, though they didn’t shout questions or attack him sharply as they did in previous forums.
Melissa Montgomery said she still thinks May should resign.
“He hasn’t stemmed the corruption that’s breaking up the county,” she said. “DeKalb government needs a major overhaul.”
But Michael Gross said he believes in May’s ability to improve county government.
“I have a lot of faith in him,” Gross said. “I want to see my county pull through and concentrate on efficient delivery of services.”
Hard to judge
The Bowers and Hyde investigation questioned whether May spent taxpayer money on a movie and a spa treatment during a December 2014 trip to a hotel in Maui for the National Association of Counties meeting.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found no record that county money had ever paid for those expenses, and May said he used his personal account to cover personal expenses incurred on the trip.
The investigation also alleged that May took a loan from a subordinate, Morris Williams, which would be an ethics code violation. May said in a recorded interview with the investigators that he borrowed “a couple of hundred dollars” from Williams, but May said in the Lithonia forum that asking for small amounts for meals and other expenses didn’t amount to an improper loan.
William Perry, the executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said it’s hard to judge May because he ended the Bowers and Hyde investigation before they were finished. May ordered the investigators to produce a final report as its costs rose after five months of work, with no end in sight.
“He made a very compelling case on every question he was asked,” said Perry, who attended all but one of May’s community meetings. “I’ve come out of this thinking he’s a talented and shrewd politician. You can’t walk away completely exonerating him or persecuting him.”
Results of DeKalb investigation
- DeKalb’s county attorney advised commissioners to stop using their office budgets to nonprofits and charities, which the investigators said is illegal.
- The county is putting out for bid a contract to remove, install and repair vehicle radio equipment after the investigators questioned a $2.4 million annual contract that was awarded without allowing competing proposals.
- May ended most of the county’s use of purchasing cards.
- DeKalb plans to post financial transactions by commissioners and departments online.
- The Sanitation Department fired a trash collector who was arrested for DUI and then rehired months later.
- Sanitation Director Billy Malone was suspended for three weeks after he was involved in several accidents in county vehicles but didn’t follow proper protocol in reporting them.
- The Georgia Legislature may consider changing DeKalb’s CEO form of government next year.