Frustrated with county leaders who seemed to be shirking their duties for political payback and personal gain, members of a Gwinnett County grand jury had an unusual suggestion: change not just the commissioners, but the system they work in.
But four years after the grand jury recommended expanding the five-member commission or giving the part-time elected officials full-time responsibility and pay, only the leaders’ faces have changed. As more time passes, it seems increasingly unlikely that the leadership structure will be altered.
“The composition, the numbers, I don’t think it’s going to change,” Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. “Larger bodies don’t necessarily mean better governing.”
The grand jury, which was called to investigate commissioner involvement in land deals in the county, saw things differently. In their 2010 report, they said the current system, in which each district commissioner has about 215,000 constituents, “does not provide adequate representation to the citizens of the County.” It also “provides too many opportunities for conflicts of interest and fosters a culture of inappropriate business relationships.”
The group suggested that changing the basic structure of the county’s government would mean fewer such conflicts and would lead to commissioners who were better informed and could therefore make better decisions.
Such a suggestion from a grand jury is uncommon, said Ted Baggett, the local government program manager at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Still, he said, “there’s no magic in the number of commissioners.”
“It’s all about perspective,” Baggett said. “I think it’s a fair question to ask: Is our government organized in a way that best serves the people?”
Residents like Dave Rhule think so. A Buford resident, Rhule said he’s impressed with the way the current slate of commissioners operates. He doesn’t think there’s any need to change.
But Dacula residents Flora and Harry Eslami said more people and full-time pay would generate better ideas and make county business move more quickly. Blessing Itua-Ahabue, who lives in Lilburn, thinks there could be change — and a larger commission, she noted, might better represent the diversity of the region. All of the commissioners are white, but in 2013, only 41 percent of Gwinnett’s 859,000 residents identified as non-Hispanic white. An additional 20 percent were Hispanic, 26 percent were black and 11 percent were Asian.
“There are different points of view, different needs,” said Itua-Ahabue, who came from Nigeria 17 years ago. “I think it would have an impact if there were more people of different ethnic groups. There would be more checks and balances.”
There is no guarantee, though, that more commissioners would add any more diversity to the board.
The existing commissioners are largely happy with the status quo, though some were willing to entertain the possibility of change. Lynette Howard, who represents District 2, said she thinks the position could easily become a full-time job. The chairman’s position already is full-time and pays $58,342 a year; the part-time commissioners make $29,800 annually. All are able to supplement their income by $1,200 annually if they complete a certified county commissioner training course.
Jace Brooks, who represents District 1, said he agrees with the grand jury that full-time pay for the commissioners would likely put less financial pressure on individuals. But if it is someone’s only source of income, he said, the pressure to be reelected would be even higher. And requiring another source of income means politicians are able to share more with their constituents, who are also in the working world.
“I like keeping my feet in the business world for the perspective it brings,” said Brooks, who, like most of the commissioners, works part-time.
Brooks said having more commissioners likely wouldn’t change the workload — after all, there wouldn’t be any fewer meetings to attend — but it that could be beneficial in terms of diversity.
The county’s legislative delegation, in the end, are the ones who can make changes to the board’s structure.
“If they’re not hearing a clamor for that, it’s just not going to get done,” said Steve Anthony, a lecturer in political science at Georgia State University.
He thinks changes are unlikely. Even the state legislature is part-time, Anthony said, and the addition of a commissioner or two likely wouldn’t change a thing. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville and chairman of Gwinnett’s House delegation, said he would be glad to take up the issue, if anyone asked him to. For now, he said, it’s not a “front-burner” issue.
And no one on the commission is asking for it: “I like it like it is,” said Tommy Hunter, who represents District 3. “It has nothing to do with the size or the makeup. It’s the quality of people you put in there.”
John Heard, the District 4 commissioner, said a larger board would just make it harder to reach a consensus. A change in pay would make no difference when it comes to malfeasance.
“I think the grand jury saw the previous commission was obviously using their elected positions to better themselves,” he said. “I think a crook is a crook and going to do crooked things regardless of how much they’re making. A person who wants to do wrong things is going to do them.”
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