Power struggle prevents representation

The DeKalb Commission will attempt to choose a representative Tuesday from five candidates:

  • Markus Butts, a member of the DeKalb Planning Commission and manager in the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management
  • Gina Smith Mangham, an attorney who ran for the DeKalb Commission in 2012 against Lee May, who is now the county's interim CEO.
  • Kathryn Rice, the leader of a movement to form a city of Greenhaven and the founder of the South DeKalb Improvement Association.
  • Kenneth Saunders III, a member of the DeKalb Parks Bond Advisory Committee and a former member of the DeKalb Community Council.
  • George Turner, the president of the District 5 Community Council and a retired MARTA manager.

Don’t send county commissioners to do the voters’ job — they haven’t gotten it done.

DeKalb’s commissioners have gridlocked for seven months over filling a vacant seat on the board, leaving roughly 140,000 southeast DeKalb residents without full representation.

The impasse could come to an end this week.

Amid building public pressure to take action, the commission conducted live-streamed interviews of five candidates last week, and they’ll try to vote in a candidate when they meet Tuesday.

The stalemate arose because six quarreling commissioners are in charge of approving a seventh commissioner who would immediately become a swing vote.

Residents of southeast DeKalb have lacked a district representative for more than a year and a half. They lost their elected commissioner, Lee May, when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him interim CEO in July 2013. May replaced CEO Burrell Ellis, who is suspended as he faces criminal charges.

Many citizens from the area blame northside commissioners for the hold-up, which has denied them a political voice in budgeting, zoning and policy decisions, such as the stalled hiring of a government finance watchdog.

When they get representation, the south and east parts of the county will have a total four commissioners, likely reducing the power of the three commissioners from the north and west, assuming both sides continue voting as a bloc.

“If another person comes on the board, that changes the balance of power,” said Michelle Emanuel-Harrington, a southeast DeKalb resident, after a recent community meeting. “They want to pick who represents us, and that’s crazy because this is still America.”

The Georgia Legislature passed a law last year creating a process to fill the role, and May collected applications from 20 residents who wanted it. In August, he nominated George Turner, a MARTA retiree and a member of a DeKalb community council that reviews zoning proposals.

That’s when the commission’s standoff began. Until the board finally rejected Turner last month, neither side was able to achieve a majority needed to move forward.

Some commissioners — Kathie Gannon, Nancy Jester and Jeff Rader — said May shouldn’t have been able to pick his successor. They wanted May to resign his commission seat, clearing the way for a special election, a request May believes is unreasonable because he’d be bumped from office if Ellis is acquitted.

The commission’s three other members — Larry Johnson, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Stan Watson — wanted to go ahead and put Turner in the seat.

Gannon denied perpetuating the deadlock to avoid becoming part of a minority faction on the board.

She said residents shouldn’t assume that a southeast DeKalb commissioner would vote against commissioners representing northern and western areas.

“That’s the kind of distrust and negative attitudes I hope we can overcome,” said Gannon, a superdistrict commissioner representing the western half of the county. “No one knows how that vote would go.”

Denying Turner’s nomination allowed the commission to move on to another candidate. Commissioners and May also voted down his second nominee for the post, Greenhaven cityhood leader Kathryn Rice. Under state law, the commission gained sole authority to select its own candidates after denying two of the CEO’s nominees.

“What you’re doing is asking politicians to give up power,” Turner said of the three commissioners who opposed his appointment. “I think they realize they have leverage now.”

Sutton, whose district covers east-central DeKalb, said the motivations of her political opponents were obvious.

“It’s wrong on so many levels. They believe the fourth vote wouldn’t vote in line with them,” she said. “You can’t have 140,000 people not be represented because some people don’t like the politics of it.”

But Rader, whose district is in west-central DeKalb, said the other side has been just as intransigent. They could have voted against Turner’s nomination months ago, or May could have resigned.

“It seems like many residents of (southeast DeKalb) District 5 are willing to tolerate the interim CEO’s refusal to resign that seat,” Rader said. “They would apparently prefer for us to pick a representative for them rather than pick one themselves.”

Southeast DeKalb resident Barbara Lee has told commissioners at public meetings that they’re denying residents of their right to have equal representation. She and John Evans, the president of the DeKalb NAACP, have filed ethics complaints against the three commissioners who voted against Turner.

“You’re using our lack of representation so you can get your way,” Lee said. “You need to think about what Jesus would do, what Dr. (Martin Luther) King would do in this situation.”

A temporary commissioner would serve in office at least until the conclusion of Ellis’ retrial, which is scheduled to begin June 1. Ellis, who has denied wrongdoing, faces charges that he extorted campaign contributions from county contractors.