DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, right, listens as attorney Craig Gillen responds to a 14-count indictment at a hearing to determine if the charges against Ellis will interfere with his job running the state's third-largest county, July 15, 2013.
Photo: David Tulis, AJC Special
Photo: David Tulis, AJC Special

DeKalb Commissioners may need full-time pay

Some DeKalb commissioners pushing for governmental reform think it should come in the form of a full-time job for commissioners — with a corresponding paycheck.

A special-purpose grand jury report that found evidence of widespread corruption in the way the county awards contracts has recommended limiting the power of the CEO’s office. One way to do that, say some commissioners, be to make commissioners full time, a move that would allow greater scrutiny over how the county is being run day-to-day. Grand jurors said full-time commissioners, free of outside business interests,”would have the opportunity to be better informed and make better decisions on behalf of their constituents.”

“Honestly for the amount of work we do, it really calls for a full-time commission if we are truly to be as effective as we need to be,” said acting county CEO Lee May. “Functionally, I think it would serve DeKalb County better for DeKalb County to have a full-time commission.”

The idea became a topic of public discussion Thursday when May and four commissioners said they planned to use the special-purpose grand jury’s recommendations as a guide to restructuring county government. Both May, a Lithonia Democrat, and Commissioner Elaine Boyer, a Stone Mountain Republican, made a bi-partisan pitch for a full-time government as one way to improve accountability.

May has recently got a taste of full-time elected benefits. He ascended to the $150,000-a-year CEO spot from his part-time $40,000 commissioner seat in July after elected CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted on corrupted charges and suspended.

DeKalb voters and state lawmakers in the DeKalb delegation, who would have to approve such a change, might not be receptive to the idea full-time commissioners, said political consultant Oliver Brown, a long-time Ellis supporter. Many would see it as growing government, he said.

“That is just another hand into the people’s pocketbook,” said Brown. “I don’t think legislators are going to go for full-time commissioners; they’re not full time themselves. That horse doesn’t look like it will ride very far.”

Boyer said the idea of a part-time commission was really a fiction when you looked at the hours the job could take.”I think all these things need to be talked about,” she said when asked about full-time pay.

Attempts to reach commissioners Larry Johnson, Stan Watson and Sharon Barnes Sutton, who became the presiding officer when May rose to CEO, were unsuccessful over a two-day period. Commissioner Kathie Gannon said supports the CEO form of government, saying some of the most successful governments in the country were like DeKalb, whose day-to-day business is overseen by an elected official.

However DeKalb winds up restructuring, a key will be convincing everyone involved that there is a balance of power that holds elected officials and the administrators they hire accountable.

“I don’t think all the power should go to the board of commissioners,” said Gannon.“It is premature to look at the form of government until we can figure out what is going on in Dekalb county in terms of cityhood. What type of services is the county really going to be providing in the future?”

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, noted the job demands and part-time pay are what made the idea of having full-time politicians more common in other parts of the country. The idea was it would open up elected office to more people than those wealthy enough to devote the time or who controlled their own schedules because they were self-employed.

Commissioner Jeff Rader said a full-time post may create a more effective commission because commissioners could devote more time to digging into policy, contracts and county business and more transparent because elected officials would be required to rely on their salaries for income and not be permitted a second career. But there is no guarantee for good government, he said.

“It depends on who you elect and there lies the rub because the skills it takes to get elected are much different than the skills to govern,” he said. “It is clear these things don’t necessarily result in the intended consequences. For instance the New York legislature is full time and there is no legislature with a worst reputation.”

May and Boyer are pushing to replace the current government structure of a full-time CEO and part-time commission with possibly going to the more common county manager form of government in which the elected commission hires a professional manager .

That form dominates in metro Atlanta but they are all considered part-time. Commissioners in Fulton and Cobb counties are paid about $40,000 while those in Gwinnett make about $30,000. Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves’ pay is similar to other commissioners while the Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash and Cobb Chairman Tim Lee make about $58,000 and $130,000 respectively. Atlanta City council members will soon make about $60,300 for what is considered a part-time job.

May was non-committal on how much to pay a full-time commissioner, saying only it should be commiserate with what other full-time commissioners were paid around the country, which can run the gamut.

For example, commissioners make $85,000-$90,000 in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, and nearly $132,000 in Dallas County, Texas. In Georgia’s Walker County, which has a sole-commissioner form of government, Commissioner Bebe Heiskell makes $103,000 but she preforms an executive role.

“I think we need to take a very deliberative approach to this,” he said. “I don’t think looking at our form of government should be steeped in politics at all.”

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