Every time I try to pump up DeKalb County, something like this happens.
On Monday, I wrote that the folks in unincorporated DeKalb who are trying to annex into Atlanta would screw over the neighbors they left behind. From my cozy perch as a citizen near Decatur, I opined that jumping into lifeboats may not be the best thing for the collective good.
But as I wrote that, my colleague Johnny Edwards published a couple stories that surely are being passed around by the cityhood forces. Call them Exhibits 172 and 173 in the case for prying themselves free from DeKalb government.
Edwards’ story starts out: “An invalid, possibly forged, legal document paved the way for a DeKalb official to win a million-dollar county contract.” The tale goes downhill from there.
The stories detail how a connected insider named Vaughn Irons, chairman of the county development authority, was able to become an eligible bidder and do business renovating homes for the county. Irons was ruled to have a conflict of interest, an objection brought forth by county employees, but he prevailed in the end because some invisible hand of fortune guided his plans through the process.
Now, it seems almost perversely suitable that he was named last year to co-chair an ethics task force. He’s supposed to help bring ethical reforms to a county government that needs a drone with a security camera hovering above it.
Irons says he did nothing wrong.
Calls for ethical change in DeKalb are like a Jack Russell forever chasing its tail. Those demands were renewed in 2013 when CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted for allegedly shaking down county contractors for campaign cash. County Commissioner Lee May was upgraded to the position of interim CEO, and then he and the commissioners began talking reform. Again.
One effort was to beef up the county ethics board to conduct real investigations. But commissioners Elaine Boyer and Sharon Barnes Sutton stalled that effort, voicing fears that outside investigators might conduct witch hunts.
A couple months later, the AJC’s Edwards completed his investigation into county “P-Cards,” pieces of plastic that allow some commissioners to act like careless teens with mom’s Visa.
Boyer could not provide receipts for more than 70 transactions.
“It doesn’t look good, put it that way,” former federal prosecutor Thaddeus P. Obvious told the AJC.
Boyer later fessed up to illegally funneling almost $80,000 to an evangelist posing as a consultant, who then kicked back some $60,000 to her.
And Sutton, Boyer’s comrade in standing firm against ethics reform, rang up more than $10,000 in undocumented purchases on electronics and office equipment. She also authorized $34,000 in county checks to her then-boyfriend, mostly for his advice.
When Edwards first began turning over rocks, Interim CEO May realized he had to do something. He announced he was creating a task force to halt the disintegration of the county and to improve effective and ethical governance.
When the task force met last summer, May, according to minutes, tapped Irons as the head of the Governance Subcommittee, the one that would propose government reforms. Sutton, also on the committee, made the actual nomination.
Irons’ name came before May last year, when a former county employee in the community development office complained about problems in her department. The employee, in a six-page, single-spaced grievance letter, devoted a full page to Irons, saying his company got a $500,000 contract “without going through the procurement process.”
She told the AJC she talked to May about it. May, who was still new in his job, told the AJC he was knee deep in “many, many concerns” at the time.
Commissioner Jeff Rader said Irons was a capable and thoughtful leader of the task force. Rader said he has less problem with the appointment than May’s lackadaisical response to the employee’s letter. “There’s a complaint that bid-rigging is going on, but Lee said, ‘I have bigger fish to fry.’ I would think it was important, because that’s how he got (the interim CEO job) in the first place.”
May’s spokesman said the employee’s complaint was mostly about working conditions, and May had a department head look into her beefs.
(Irons, a longtime development authority member, is caught up in another controversy, a plan to create a 24-hour gaming resort in south DeKalb. That attraction would feature up to 425 machines that pay out non-cash prizes. I figure a mini-Vegas is a novel idea for an underdeveloped area that needs something. A lot of residents say this is not that something.)
This brings us back to Irons’ task force, which came up with some logical solutions: install an ethics officer; have community leaders, not commissioners, pick ethics board members; retool the bidding process, and hire an independent, internal auditor with subpoena power (and, I would add, extreme intestinal fortitude).
Joel Edwards, a south DeKelb resident who came to the first task force meeting last June, likes the idea of an independent ethics board and an auditor with teeth. But he said the task force had too many politicians and not enough community leaders.
“All these commissioners need to be replaced,” said Edwards, a retired MARTA driver who volunteers for the group Restore DeKalb. “This county needs a clean sweep.”
I must note that the county school board basically got a clean sweep, and people are still mad at them.
State Senators Gloria Butler and Elena Parent, Democrats from DeKalb who served on the task force, have introduced bills to enact the reforms suggested above. But both complain that Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican from up north in Dunwoody, is holding the bills up. Millar has long advocated reform in DeKalb. He was also on the task force.
“He’s standing in the way of reforms that he helped craft,” said an exasperated Parent.
Millar says he’ll block the bills until legislators renew a property tax freeze for DeKalb. He fears county leaders will dig into voters’ pockets if he doesn’t get that done. The reforms are his hostage.
To misuse the famous movie quote, “Forget it, Jake; it’s DeKalb.”
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