Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher broke the story this week that the CEO says his critics are politicizing weaknesses in DeKalb's purchasing system.

DeKalb commissioners embrace audit review opposed by CEO

A disagreement over how to handle large purchases has exposed a growing rift between DeKalb County commissioners and the CEO.

Commissioners say they recently saved taxpayers over $400,000 by insisting that auditors review two big-ticket purchases.

But CEO Michael Thurmond is resisting any policy that would require auditors to evaluate every large purchase put before commissioners for approval. Thrumond says it’s illegal to create those rules without changes to the county’s organizational documents through the Legislature.

The county’s ethics officer and chief auditor disagree, however, and said Thurmond could implement the auditor’s review as a policy if he wanted to.

Even if that doesn’t happen, commissioners who have grown frustrated with what they perceive as lack of communication and cooperation from Thurmond’s office say they will seek the reviews on their own.

03/13/2018 -- Decatur, GA - DeKalb County commissioner Kathie Gannon during a DeKalb County board of commissioners meeting in Decatur, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

They point to the recent Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting as proof that auditors should review procurements that will cost taxpayers millions, a practice recommended in a recent evaluation of the county’s purchasing department.

“I think we can follow that recommendation and the spirit with which it was given by initiating it ourselves,” Commissioner Kathie Gannon said during that Feb. 19 meeting.

The committee approved the contracts — one worth $3.9 million for tree cutting and removal and another $1.5 million for landscaping — only after hearing from a county auditor that spending concerns had been addressed.

The contracts had been stuck on the committee’s agenda for weeks because Gannon and Councilwoman Nancy Jester wanted an auditor’s review. Auditors found savings by suggesting the county divide the approvals up by task instead of just hiring the company that submitted the lowest overall quote, and some duplication was eliminated.

Gannon and Jester both indicated it may not be the last time that the contracts needed approval from the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee are put on hold until auditors have a chance to review them and suggest changes.

“It’s something that helps us do our due diligence,” Gannon said during the meeting. “And before we raise our hand to spend millions and millions of dollars we need to be assured that the due diligence — sometimes we don’t know enough; quite often we don’t know enough.”

Shortly after the meeting adjourned, commissioners received a memo from the county attorney that appeared to caution them from making the auditor’s review of contracts more than an occasional practice. The memo reiterated the same argument Thurmond has used to resist creating a policy, that formalizing a review of contracts requires a change to DeKalb’s organizing documents and voter approval.

“To be clear, any mandatory policy/practice of internal audit review prior to BOC approval of all contracts over a million dollars requires action by the General Assembly and approval by the voters,” county attorney Viviane Ernstes wrote.

As part of his 2019 budget, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond on Tuesday recommended that the county contribute about an additional $6 million a year to the employee pension fund.

Thurmond said recently that he has no problem with county commissioners asking auditors to review certain procurements on a case-by-case basis. He even applauded the that Public Works committee for seeking more information from auditors.

“They always could,” Thurmond said. “That’s nothing new. That’s something that has always been in their purview.”

Chief audit executive John Greene oversees DeKalb’s Office of Independent Internal Audit and a team of analysts.

Thurmond declined to say if he would oppose county commissioners insisting on the auditors’ review more frequently or for all contracts above a certain amount. But he has been reluctant to embrace changes he interprets as infringing on his executive powers under DeKalb’s unique CEO form of government.

Jeff Rader, the commission’s presiding officer, says he worries that without Thurmond coming to an agreement about when and how auditors can review the contracts, commissioners might unnecessarily delay important contracts.

He cited a project that was put on ice for months, although for different reasons. Expansion of the Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility was held up by commissioners who said Thurmond’s administration had not provided enough information about the status of the $188 million project. It was approved in November after commissioners said they finally received answers to their questions.

Members of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners posed for a group photo after a meeting on Jan. 15, 2019. (L to R) Nancy Jester, Larry Johnson, Steve Bradshaw, presiding officer Jeff Rader, Mereda Davis Johnson, Kathie Gannon, and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson. Photo by the DeKalb County government.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Commissioner Steve Bradshaw said both sides can find middle ground that reaches the goal of improving oversight of purchasing without infringing on the CEO’s executive power.

“I agree with the general premise that there is probably something that is workable that would satisfy the desires of my colleagues and not encroach upon the CEO’s prerogatives and move stuff through this committee in an efficient manner,” he said.

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