Power changes hands in DeKalb Commission vote

DeKalb County commissioners chose Kathie Gannon as their new leader Tuesday, just weeks after elections shattered intractable alliances and shifted power on the board.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to make Gannon the board's presiding officer, a position that gives her the authority to set the county's policy agenda, run board meetings and appoint committee members. She unseated Commissioner Larry Johnson, who had held the position since 2014.

The DeKalb Commission has been divided into factions on several key votes, split along geographic borders. Officials roughly representing the northern and southern parts of the county have been at odds over the county budget, a new animal shelter, a temporary representative for southeast DeKalb and a soccer complex.

The problem worsened when Commissioner Lee May became the county’s interim CEO in July 2013. That left the board evenly divided for two years and, at times, stalemated.

But with two new commissioners — Greg Adams and Steve Bradshaw — elected to the board last year, dynamics are shifting.

Gannon said she represents the change that voters wanted when they overhauled the county's government during last year's elections. She said she looks forward to working with Adams, Bradshaw and the newly elected CEO, Mike Thurmond, and district attorney, Sherry Boston.

“We rise together, or we fall together,” said Gannon, whose super district covers the western half of the county. “We’re all part of DeKalb County. … I’m going to help us do our job, which we haven’t done for a very long time.”

But cracks were already showing Tuesday in that united front.

Johnson said Gannon’s promise of better leadership was an “illusion of inclusion.” Johnson, whose district is in southwest DeKalb, said he better represents the majority of DeKalb’s residents.

“I’ve been a leader for the whole county and not just for one particular group,” Johnson said. “I love this county. It’s a great county. I will continue to serve and make a difference. But you just can’t just go around disrespecting a person in a position and then expect all of a sudden now things to change.”

Gannon’s ascent to the presiding officer position was a direct result of last year’s elections.

She got the job with the help of Bradshaw, who unseated Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton in a Stone Mountain-area district. Sutton previously backed Johnson.

Bradshaw said in a statement that Gannon would lead DeKalb “in a more collaborative way,” representing both north and south sides of the county.

John Evans, a former head of the DeKalb NAACP, said race played a role. Before the leadership vote, he urged the commission's four black commissioners to use their majority to elect Johnson. Gannon is white; Johnson is black.

“We’re talking about power. If you want power, we’ve got four votes, they’ve got three votes,” Evans told commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting. “If you don’t want to use it, you ought to just give it up. This is no play time.”

But Mereda Davis Johnson, who is black, said it’s time for a change.

“I trust that she will do the best for the county, including all districts in this county,” said Davis Johnson, who represents southeast DeKalb. “Hopefully we can come together, work together as a board and move this county forward.”

Gannon also won support from Commissioners Nancy Jester and Jeff Rader. Commissioners Greg Adams and Larry Johnson were opposed.

Gannon has said she wants to scrutinize public spending, strengthen public safety and more thoroughly vet policies. She was the board’s presiding officer in 2008.

She declined to discuss specific proposals, but she said she wants to examine police officer retention and affordable housing efforts.

The commission also elected Rader as its deputy presiding officer.

At the end of the contentious meeting, Johnson handed the presiding officer’s gavel to Gannon and they hugged on stage.

“I figure if Obama and Trump can do it, I can do it too,” he said.