DeKalb candidate got county money before elected

A day before he was even elected, a DeKalb County Commission candidate had a county office and a part-time secretary paid for with tax dollars.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found Stan Watson is spending $5,000 of county funds for his transition. Watson, a former state legislator, ran unopposed last week for the District 7 commission seat and will assume office Jan. 1.

“It’s for transition money and $5,000 is a pittance,” Watson told the AJC on Tuesday.

While it may seem unrealistic, legally a write-in candidate could have won that seat.

“The thing that disturbs me very much is this was done before he was officially elected,” said John Steinichen, a resident of DeKalb for 50 years. “We are paying for his transition and he had nothing to transition to since he wasn’t even elected yet.”

The county commission never voted on the expenditure and some even objected to it.

“This is something we had never done before and I didn’t see a need for it,” Commissioner Kathie Gannon told the AJC. “We didn’t agree to anything and there was never a vote. I just feel like it is an inappropriate expenditure and sets a precedent.”

In September, Watson wrote a letter to Commissioner Larry Johnson, the presiding officer, for $15,000 to hire an administrative assistant for his “transition effort.”

On Oct. 25 – a week before the election – Johnson told Watson that he could have $5,000, according to records obtained by the AJC. His part-time secretary started Nov. 1.

County officials said Watson is not receiving a salary, just the secretary. The money will come from leftover dollars in the commission’s central staff budget, Johnson said. Johnson also said no vote was necessary because it was under $100,000.

Commissioners Jeff Rader and Connie Stokes said they didn’t know that the money had been awarded since no vote was taken.

“It’s more important now that the commissioner come in prepared and their staff knows what to do,” Johnson told the AJC. “We have a $30 million deficit, the pension, furloughs and all kind of problems. This is an imperfect storm and we’re trying to get him acclimated.”

Prior to Johnson’s letter, Gannon wrote a letter objecting to the money.

“This would seem to be a bad precedent to set, especially during this time of budget shortfalls that will continue into 2011,” Gannon wrote. “With only two months left before the holiday break $15,000 is equivalent to a salary of $90,000.”

Most commission assistants make under $50,000.

Watson said it is not a big deal since only one commissioner objected and he didn’t see a need for it to be voted on publicly.

“If we are going to be involved with the budget process, I need staff trained,” Watson said. “On Jan. 1, we need to be able to provide leadership.”

The money is on top of the funds being spent for Stokes, the current District 7 commissioner and her staff. Stokes said she plans to serve up to Dec. 31.

“I don’t know how this translates to services for District 7 residents because they have a commissioner with staff,” Gannon said. “I don’t understand it. I don’t support it. I think these are valid concerns, especially with our budget situation.”

Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton said she also supported the position. “We should focus on professionalism,” Barnes-Sutton wrote in response to Gannon’s objections. “This is not the time for petty politics.”

This year, the commission cut more than $100 million from its budget, including losing more than 800 employees to early retirement and mandating the remaining employees take seven furlough days. The commission is also facing a shortfall of at least $46 million – including $16 million more in pension debt – in next year’s budget.

District 7 is a “super” district that covers about half of the county. “He will represent about 350,000 people from Tucker to south DeKalb. He needs to get ahead of the budget and know what their needs are,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Lee May said the precedent was set when the commission voted in 2008 to give $150,000 to CEO Burrell Ellis for a transition team. However, he got the money after he won the election. Ellis defeated Watson for CEO.

“I think it is not only a good precedent, but a necessary one, not only for Stan but for any incoming commissioner,” May wrote.

A spokesman for the CEO said the county does not have a policy governing transition money.