Poll: Change DeKalb government

A poll business leaders commissioned about DeKalb County government indicates some confusion from voters about having an elected chief executive run daily operations.

But the poll conducted by HEG-Apache Political for the Stone Mountain Community Improvement District, obtained exclusively by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shows that most are clear about wanting a county manager to be in charge and being able to vote to make it happen.

The poll, focused on gauging support for and opposition to changing DeKalb’s form of government, comes on the heels of a scathing special grand jury report that concluded the government structure itself contributes to a culture of corruption. The report, whose findings helped lead to a 15-count indictment against CEO Burrell Ellis, recommends eliminating the CEO post.

The poll of 1,119 registered voters, conducted over two days in late August, found 82 percent of voters either believed DeKalb was headed in the wrong direction or still needed change.

A slim majority, 50.5 percent, said they would not oppose switching to a county manager structure, the poll found.

But when asked how they would vote if given the opportunity, 62 percent of those who said they would oppose change or weren’t sure said that they would pick a county manager over a CEO.

DeKalb decided in 1989 that an elected executive similar to a mayor would lead its government. Professional managers, appointed and overseen by county commissioners, run operations in all other large metro Atlanta counties and most others in Georgia.

The head of the community improvement district, the largest developed area in unincorporated DeKalb with about $400 million in taxable property, said business leaders wanted the poll done to look beyond the personalities into the operations of county government.

Businesses have complained for years about DeKalb’s lengthy permit process, now being streamlined, and of a need to meet with both an executive and legislative branch on every project, said CID executive director Emory Morsberger.

“We wanted to see if voters agreed there might be a better way, and it turns out, a large majority do want government changed,” Morsberger said.

In another poll question, 64 percent of voters supported legislative action to change the government, if a majority of residents agreed.

State lawmakers would need to change the county’s charter, called an organization act, to eliminate the CEO job. Creating a county manager structure would likely require a public vote.

“I think fatigue with the traditional way of playing politics is wearing thin among voters in DeKalb,” said Fredrick Hicks, a Democrat whose HEG firm teamed up with Republican Mike Hassinger’s Apache Political on the poll. “While the intensity of support varies by group, the trend of supporting a new direction holds.”

The differences vary mostly by race, not by political party, in the state’s most heavily Democratic county. About 62 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans support a county manager system.

However, just 55 percent of African-American voters support a manager over a CEO, compared to 79 percent of white voters. All Asian voters among the poll respondents preferred a manager, while Hispanics were evenly split with a third each supporting a manager, a CEO or being unsure.

Those differences matter in south DeKalb and the Atlanta part of the county, home to the state lawmakers who control the organizational act.

Interim CEO Lee May, who represented south DeKalb as a commissioner, supports eliminating the CEO job, as do a majority of commissioners. They have pledged to submit a formal request for change to lawmakers this year.

But state Rep. Howard Mosby, the Atlanta Democrat who heads the county’s House delegation, has long said he held up any change because there was no groundswell from residents, only politicians.

The poll doesn’t sway that opinion, he said, because he feels the results are a knee-jerk reaction to Ellis’ troubles, although the poll does not mention him or any others by name.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t take up some changes, such as figuring out ways to allow the commission or others to check the power of the CEO, Mosby said. Those changes also require action on the state level.

“No one is trying to change the mayor form of government in cities, so why doesn’t it work in counties,” Mosby said. “We need to think through the gaps and shortfalls but that does not mean change for the sake of change.”

Some residents agree. Charles Peagler, a retired business owner who lives in South DeKalb, doesn’t believe the change will help, or hurt, county government.

The only thing that will help DeKalb improve, he said, is if people from all corners of the county kick out the current elected officials and elect people with no links to the ongoing struggles and accusations.

“I think our county commission would drive a county manager crazy and end up driving them away,” Peagler said. “Gwinnett County has a professional manager, and they have commissioners going to jail. So forgive me if I don’t see how not having a CEO would make this a better county for me to live in.”

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