New hire draws ire in DeKalb

DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis recently created a new public affairs chief job – at a six-figure salary – out of the county’s parks budget, according to documents obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Jill Strickland began Jan. 23, effectively becoming the manager of the existing county spokesman, Burke Brennan. Brennan’s $121,500 salary is included in the CEO’s budget, while Strickland’s $125,000 pay comes from parks.

Ellis and other county leaders have blamed the economy for the need to slash that department’s spending, from $22.5 million in 2008 to $10.2 million last year. But north-central county residents cited the resulting service reductions as the top reason they went on to create the city of Brookhaven last year.

“That money could pay for a playground, or fund a girls’ softball league for an entire season for underprivileged kids,” said Chad Boles, a financial adviser who organized cleanups at Briarwood Park near his Brookhaven home after the cuts left it overgrown and hard to use.

“I wish I could say I was shocked, but it’s just one more thing in a long history of irresponsible decisions that are made by DeKalb County,” he added.

Strickland started in the job less than three weeks after the district attorney’s office searched Ellis’ home and office looking for evidence of political corruption. Ellis has not been charged with a crime.

Hakim Hilliard said he sought Strickland out shortly after he took over as Ellis’ chief of staff in October. He interviewed her as early as November, records show. He offered her the job in December, weeks before the Jan. 9 searches on Ellis.

But the hiring has increased a lack of public trust among some residents, which could hamper Ellis’ job of running metro Atlanta’s third-largest county while simultaneously fighting DA Robert James to read a special grand jury’s report on possible corruption before it is made public.

That battle is playing out in motions filed before the state Court of Appeals. Ellis has declined to comment on the matter other than to deny any wrongdoing.

“I really can’t say anything about that,” said Sue Binkert, who leads a group of more than 80 volunteers who want to plan improvements to Brookhaven’s eight parks. “I am just disappointed they’re using money earmarked for parks for other purposes.”

Hilliard said he plans to move Strickland’s position to the CEO’s budget by this summer and pay back any money spent from parks, though that may increase the CEO office’s spending.

He said Strickland’s main task is to overhaul the county’s communications office to better get information out to the community. She also is working to improve communication to county employees and within departments.

“The thing we sit around and strategize is, in light of all that’s happening, how do we continue to do the work of the county,” Hilliard said. “The CEO has nothing to do with this. This is to further the best interests of the county.”

Strickland’s past jobs include serving as first-term spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and as spokeswoman for Atlanta Councilman Aaron Watson. She was also Pennsylvania press secretary for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

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