With millions at stake, DeKalb leaders split on purchasing system fix

Government purchasing in DeKalb County and the scandals that followed have plunged the county into crisis over the years.

But recent efforts to clean up the system by adopting new local procurement rules have stalled and caused a round of finger-pointing among the county’s top elected leaders.

In one corner, CEO Michael Thurmond says it’s his job to set county purchasing rules. While he calls it a “high priority,” he says other more pressing needs have required his attention.

In the other corner are the county commissioners, who last summer finalized their own reform proposal before receiving a legal opinion that said they could be overstepping their authority. The commission's presiding officer has grown increasingly frustrated and is now urging his colleagues to sign off on the purchasing policy he helped craft even if CEO Thurmond objects.

“We’re not trying to pick a fight,” Commissioner Jeff Rader said. “We’re just trying to finish the job.”

Rader, who heads the commission, spent two years working on a new procurement ordinance to address how the county spends taxpayer money on goods and services. However, a July memo from the county attorney questioned the commission’s authority to approve a purchasing law.

County attorney Viviane Ernstes suggested such an ordinance could be vulnerable to a legal challenge, and she outlined why it could be illegal for commissioners to unilaterally adopt new purchasing rules.

Historically, the DeKalb CEO was empowered to set purchasing policies for county employees. In 2015, the General Assembly adopted a law that shifted some oversight to the commission. It said the DeKalb CEO had authority to craft purchasing policies subject to commission approval. But that change was never ratified by a voter referendum and could be considered invalid, Ernstes wrote.

Thurmond said the county attorney’s memo convinced him that the commissioners do not have a role in crafting purchasing policy.

“I’m not interested in their ordinance,” he said. “What I’m interested in is what has this administration done to address the issue.”

Thurmond says since taking office two years ago he has implemented changes that strengthen purchasing and contracting in DeKalb. He noted his stewardship was praised recently by county auditors after his administration fixed problems with a years-old sewer cleaning contract.

Senior internal auditor John Lipham said the Department of Watershed Management had improved controls under the new agreement and addressed concerns about how vendors priced their services.

“I think we have a much better process on this contract,” Lipham said during a recent update to county commissioners on audit findings.

Rader said he doesn’t believe Thurmond has acted inappropriately, but he’s worried that without a purchasing ordinance the county is susceptible to bad actors across the government.

CEO Burrell Ellis' conviction was overturned in 2016, but not before he served months in jail on charges of soliciting campaign donations from county vendors. Former CEO Vernon Jones was implicated in a 2013 grand jury report that outlined a scheme involving kickbacks and bid-rigging, but he was never criminally charged. Workers in various departments have been accused of bribery, fraud and mismanaging taxpayer dollars.

“It’s not like the FBI hasn’t been sniffing around DeKalb for as long as I have been serving on the commission,” Rader said. “And it is the fundamental lack of a law that puts every member of the staff in a very difficult situation.”

Still, an outside firm hired to audit the county’s procurement program last year found no new examples of corruption or fraud, according to its report finalized in January. But The Hartman Firm’s report outlined where the county remains vulnerable and said DeKalb lacks safeguards.

Auditors found the lack of a strong purchasing ordinance and lax policies created weaknesses across the government.

“DeKalb County’s procurement program is at high risk for waste, fraud, corruption, and abuse,” the auditors concluded.

The audit and its 27 recommendations have only widened a rift between the CEO and some county commissioners. Thurmond took issue with nearly half of the auditor's findings, saying some of the recommendations weren't feasible and others could violate the law.

For Commissioner Nancy Jester, the audit was a wake-up call. One of the auditor’s suggestions was for all contracts above $1 million to undergo a review by county’s internal auditors to ensure they were awarded fairly and wisely. Thurmond has resisted implementing the policy because of the same separation-of-power concerns outlined in the county attorney’s memo.

As a result, Jester now votes no on any contract exceeding $1 million as a protest vote since that recommendation has not been adopted.

“As an elected official, that makes me very vulnerable,” she said. “How can I argue in good faith that I’m doing my level best if I’m ignoring this professional recommendation?”

Why it matters

Corruption issues that plagued DeKalb County in the past were often associated with purchasing and contracting. An outside audit finalized in January said that although no recent issues were discovered, a lack of a purchasing ordinance and lack policies leaves the county vulnerable still.

The Board of Commissioners and CEO Michael Thurmond disagree on who is ultimately responsible for approving purchasing laws, which means nothing has been done to fix the issues and allowing those vulnerabilities to continue indefinitely.