DeKalb residents denied representation indefinitely

A county in crisis

  • The DeKalb Commission is one member down, leaving 140,000 residents without a district representative.
  • Suspended CEO Burrell Ellis awaits a retrial on extortion charges.
  • Former Commissioner Elaine Boyer and her husband have pleaded guilty to using taxpayer money for themselves.
  • Jerry Clark, a former member of the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals, pleaded guilty last month to taking a bribe for his vote.
  • Board of Ethics member Robert Blackman resigned last week after telling a government employee to "come outside" to settle an argument.
  • Former DeKalb Custodial Services Manager Patrick Jackson has pleaded not guilty to charges that he steered janitorial work to a company in exchange for a luxury apartment, furniture and utilities.
  • An appeal is pending following a guilty plea by DeKalb Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis and convictions against two others involving manipulation of construction contracts.

Representation for southeast DeKalb

July 2006: Voters elect Lee May in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Hank Johnson as he ran for Congress. Johnson defeated Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

June 2013: A grand jury indicts DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis on charges that he extorted campaign contributions from county contractors.

July 2013: Gov. Nathan Deal suspends Ellis and appoints May to serve as interim county CEO.

April 2014: Deal signs a law passed by the Georgia General Assembly creating a process for DeKalb to choose a temporary commissioner.

August 2014: May nominates George Turner, a MARTA retiree and active community member, to serve as a temporary commissioner. He chose Turner from 20 applicants.

August 2014-February 2015: A deadlocked DeKalb Commission fails to reach a majority to either confirm or deny Turner's nomination.

February 2015: The DeKalb Commission rejects Turner and May's second choice, Greenhaven cityhood movement leader Kathryn Rice.

March 2015: Commissioners nominate five candidates for the job, including Turner and Rice. After televised and live-streamed interviews of the candidates last week, the divided commission failed to confirm any of the candidates Tuesday.

To come: Southeast DeKalb will continue to lack representation unless the commission reaches a compromise or the case against Ellis is resolved. Ellis' retrial is scheduled for June 1.

Angry, bickering DeKalb County commissioners on Tuesday failed once again to select a representative for 140,000 residents.

The infighting squandered their best chance at filling a commission seat that has been vacant for more than a year and a half in the wake of corruption charges against suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.

Residents of southeast DeKalb will remain without full representation indefinitely, victims of a factionalized commission mired in political power struggles.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Any one of the six commissioners could have broken the stalemate if he or she had voted the other way.

Interim CEO Lee May, who represented southeast DeKalb before Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to replace Ellis in July 2013, also had an opportunity to ensure his constituents were represented. But May voted against Gina Smith Mangham, an attorney who ran against him in 2012, after the commission deadlocked 3-3.

“I’m frustrated,” southeast DeKalb resident Shelby Hall said after the votes. “We have a lack of representation. It’s just unfair.”

Others in the audience also said they were disgusted with the commission.

“It’s a farce. It’s taxation without representation,” said Waymon Norwood, who lives in southwest DeKalb. “These people need representation. They’re paying taxes just like everyone else.”

The commission’s heated debate included calls for May to resign, arguments over each side’s motives and accusations that commissioners were playing games at the expense of residents.

The duty to pick southeast DeKalb’s commissioner falls to the board — not voters — because of a process put in place last year by the state Legislature, specifically for DeKalb. That commissioner would likely become the swing vote on the deeply divided panel.

An election can be held only if May resigns the commission seat he was elected to, a move he’s unwilling to make because he wants to return to representing the area if Ellis is acquitted in a retrial and resumes the role of CEO.

“They want the finger to be pointed at me, as if I’m the culprit of this,” May said after the votes. “They’re playing politics with the voting representation for the citizens of District 5.”

May said he voted against Mangham because he wanted his top candidate, George Turner, to get the job.

But May never got to vote on Turner, a MARTA retiree and member of a community council that reviews zoning proposals.

That’s because Commissioner Nancy Jester abstained after the first vote on Mangham, resulting in 3-2 votes for Turner, DeKalb Planning Commissioner Markus Butts and DeKalb Parks Bond Advisory Committee member Kenneth Saunders III.

Four votes are needed for approval, and May can intervene only if there’s a tie. No one seconded a motion to hold a vote on the last nominee, Greenhaven cityhood movement leader Kathryn Rice.

Jester said she removed herself because the commission had stopped having a collaborative discussion. May countered that she was making a calculated maneuver to disempower him.

“The conversation had just deteriorated to such a level that I did not feel confident voting for any of these candidates,” Jester said. “That was not an environment where we should be picking the appointed District 5 commissioner.”

Jester’s allies on the board, Commissioners Kathie Gannon and Jeff Rader, voted against Turner and Butts. Commissioners Larry Johnson, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Stan Watson voted for them. Saunders’ nomination also fell short on a 3-2 vote, with Johnson joining Gannon and Rader in support of the candidate.

Sutton said Jester, Gannon and Rader are stalling to preserve their power. They fear they’d become a three-vote minority if a southeast DeKalb commissioner sided with the other southside and eastside commissioners, she said.

“If we don’t reach an agreement, they win,” Sutton said. “Perhaps we can put this day behind us and cooler heads will prevail.”

That doesn’t appear to be likely. After Tuesday’s squabbling, commissioners said in interviews that each side is more entrenched and distrusting than ever.

Southeast DeKalb residents may have to go without a representative until the resolution of the charges against Ellis.

Ellis has denied allegations that he shook down county contractors for campaign contributions, and a hung jury resulted in a mistrial last fall. Ellis’ retrial is scheduled to start June 1.