DeKalb commissioners want government without a CEO

They unanimously adopted new procedural rules Tuesday to comply with the new governing structure mandated by voters last year. The prior chief executive officer, Vernon Jones, chaired the commission meetings and set the agenda, but under the new rules the commission gets to call its own shots and the new CEO, Burrell Ellis, has no legislative role except a veto.

Yet a majority of the seven commissioners are still unsatisfied. They say they want to eliminate the executive branch entirely, and hire a professional county manager to administer government. About a quarter of Georgia counties, including Cobb and Fulton, are structured that way. In nearly all the rest, the commissions run government directly or through numerous appointees.

There are a handful of counties where one elected official runs everything, but they are small. DeKalb is the only county in Georgia with an elected CEO form of government, and the only big one with so much power concentrated in one person.

"We don't need a CEO," said Elaine Boyer of north DeKalb, the lone Republican on the commission. "We have seven elected officials who represent the county as a whole, and they could direct a county manager to get things done. It works fine everywhere."

Lee May, a Democrat from south DeKalb, said he and his colleagues are still frustrated with "how the system is built." The CEO still controls a lot of crucial information, and it's not flowing to the commission, May said. "Many of us are just frustrated because we are not getting answers like we should."

State lawmakers from DeKalb say they'd consider a referendum if the county commission asks them to. And that looks likely: in interviews, a majority of the commissioners said they want a county manager form of government, and none of them outright opposed the idea.

Disputes over DeKalb's governing structure date back to at least the early1980s, when Manuel Maloof was chairman of the county commission. Back then, people complained that the chairman had too much power over his fellow commissioners, said Bob Bell, who was a Republican state senator. So lawmakers asked DeKalb voters if they wanted to divide their government into two clear branches, an executive and a legislative.

The referendum passed, establishing the office of CEO in 1985. But Bell said that law didn't separate the two new branches enough. Bell said Maloof, who went on to win the first CEO election, had promised to support the referendum in exchange for a couple amendments: Maloof wanted the CEO to have control over commission meetings and a veto over commissioners' decisions. Bell said he regrets making the changes. "We created, unfortunately, a superpower in the CEO's office," he said. "We made a mistake."

Last year, lawmakers and voters made a change, giving commissioners control over their own affairs. Yet commissioners are still complaining about a lot of the same things: a lack of access to financial information, limited influence over the procurement process and confusion over the lines of authority. The tension became clear in recent weeks when commissioners began asking for preliminary budget information. The county is facing a steep deficit and will likely have to raise taxes or cut spending.

Ellis won't turn over the documents. He said commissioners are asking for "work papers" with numbers that will likely change before he reveals his formal budget proposal on Dec. 15, as the law mandates. He said commissioners might be using the threat of a new form of government as "a negotiating point over the budget," and he defended the CEO form of government. He noted that it is in use in other parts of the country, such as Mongtomery County, Md., and King County in Washington state.

The leaders of DeKalb's Senate and House delegations -- Sen. Steve Henson and Rep. Howard Mosby -- said commissioners should give their new form of government more time. But they both said a referendum would likely get introduced under the Gold Dome if that's what the commission wanted.

"If they came up with a resolution," Henson said, "it's certainly something we would have to discuss and consider."

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