Burrell Ellis has moved quickly to address issues

DeKalb CEO fired police chief, dealt with Recorders Court problems

One year into his first term, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis can point to a lengthy “to do” list with a lot of check marks.

Last year, as he prepared to take office, a panel of civic and business leaders on his transition team gave him a 91-page book of goals. Ellis was supposed to coordinate public safety in the hands of one person. Check.

He was to name permanent heads of key agencies that had been run by temporary leaders. Check.

He needed to dig into the problems at the county Recorders Court, which allegedly lost millions of dollars in uncollected fines. Check again.

Ellis served eight years on the county commission before running for the county’s top elected post in 2008. He won, succeeding two-term CEO Vernon Jones.

Ellis took office soon after voters approved a referendum divorcing the CEO from the commission. Jones and prior CEOs set the commission’s agenda and presided over meetings. Ellis is the first to operate purely as an elected executive. He moved out of the county headquarters into a nearby building a couple blocks away, as if to emphasize the separation.

After a headline-grabbing row with then Police Chief Terrell Bolton, whom Ellis fired for insubordination, among other causes, Ellis started working on his transition checklist, reorganizing the government and preparing for an ever-shrinking budget. Unlike Jones, who presided over a budget that grew year after year, Ellis has had to cut tens of millions of dollars. Earlier this month, he also proposed a property tax increase of 11 percent.

People still seem to like him. “I didn’t vote for him, but I will more than make up for it,” said Brenda Pace, president of the East Lake Terrace Neighborhood Association in south DeKalb. She was impressed by a recent neighborhood “summit” where officials explained how to access government services and how to establish nonprofits that can push for change. The event drew upwards of 500 neighborhood leaders, and Pace is now volunteering at the county as a liaison to residents.

“I will volunteer with his government. As long as they’re doing the right thing for this county, I’ll give it my all,” Pace said

On the county’s north side, Beth Nathan, president of the North Briarcliff Civic Association, said county staff under Ellis had become “more communicative.” Projects that had been promised for years, such as development of the Mary Scott Nature Preserve, finally made headway, she said. “So far, CEO Ellis’ administration is earning an above average grade,” she said.

Not all praise

There are critics, though. Ann Brown praised Ellis in October when he announced a down payment assistance program to help county police buy homes in DeKalb. But, said an impatient Brown, no officers have bought any of the numerous vacant houses in her neighborhood south of Decatur.

The county recently announced that serious crime had decreased, but Brown, who is president of the Belvedere Civic Club, said she hasn’t seen it. “I feel less safe,” she said.

Ellis took the reins during what was arguably one of the most difficult moments in county history: the national economy was on the brink of collapse, and county tax revenue was plunging. He cut $29 million from the budget in 2009, and proposed a similar cutback next year with the elimination of 760 jobs. It’s difficult to institute new programs that inspire praise under such circumstances.

Ellis touted his accomplishments in a recent interview. He said he eked efficiencies out of county government, thinning a “top heavy” administration in the police department and consolidating police, fire and other public safety agencies under one director. That realignment paid off in tighter coordination, he said, when an historic storm flooded the county. Rescuers scrambled with boats, and no one died though many homes were underwater, he noted. The county quickly opened a disaster recover center with the federal government.

“We worked around the clock. We broke down the silos in county government.” Ellis said. “I think we did a bang-up job.”

Still, a majority of the seven county commissioners complained in November that the government structure wasn’t working and said they’d like to consider a referendum abolishing the CEO’s office and putting them in charge.

They complained that they weren’t getting the information, or services, they requested from the county administration. But earlier this month, one of the leaders of that effort, Commissioner Connie Stokes, reversed herself on the referendum idea, saying that the timing was poor given the problems with the budget. The resolution for a referendum failed after she voted against it this month.

Stokes said that Ellis had done a “phenomenal” job in his first year. “We started off kind of bumpy,” she said of her relationship with him. “I think we ended up on a great note.”

Ellis dismissed commissioner complaints about not getting information, saying that he talked regularly with each commissioner. One can always find critics, he said.

“I think if you went out and talked to general citizens,” Ellis said, “I think we have a strong record of accomplishment.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution drove around DeKalb and polled a half dozen men and women on the street. Two people, including Shari Bumpers of Stone Mountain, had wild praise for Ellis. “I expected him to get rid of a lot of people, and he did,” said Bumpers, 51, who was walking out of the Northlake Mall. She was particularly pleased that Ellis fired Bolton, who irked her because he maintained a home in Texas while working here. “Right there, he got a gold star from me,” she said of the CEO.

None criticized Ellis directly. Then again, most didn’t know who he was, including Dorshel Pitts and Adam Barnett. Pitts, a 26-year-old from Lithonia, complained about potholes that “destroy your car” and long lines at the Recorders Court. But Barnett, 47, praised county government, saying he moved to north DeKalb from neighboring Fulton County for lower property taxes and for services, such as yard trash collection, that he said are more reliable. Fulton, he said, was “miserable” by comparison.

And then there was Reva Molden of Clarkston. Perhaps more than anyone, Molden, 22, illustrates what local government is all about. She was catching a bus from the Gallery at South DeKalb and relies on MARTA to take her and her 4-year-old son to day care. They walk along a dirt path from a bus stop on busy North Decatur Road near East Ponce de Leon Avenue. The path is so narrow that they must travel single file, with her son in front and the speeding cars coming so close that she can feel their wind. When it rains, a muddy puddle blocks their path.

Molden knew who Ellis was and said she was “probably in between with him.” He could sway her into his favor by fulfilling a simple request, she said: build a sidewalk for her and her son.