Probe revives talk of scrapping DeKalb CEO job

The never-ending grumblings that DeKalb County should scrap its CEO and replace him with a county manager have rippled into growing chatter under the Gold Dome.

Blame the scandal that captured attention and generated confusion when the DA raided the home and office of CEO Burrell Ellis earlier this month. Or lay it at the feet of constant critics who insist commission-run governments succeed in all other major metro Atlanta counties.

Whatever the reason, state lawmakers are again discussing whether this might be the year when talk produces actual change. They are ready to respond to a push for change by county residents, some said, if one develops.

“The discussion about DeKalb County’s government organization is accelerating because of the increasing unrest among citizens,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Democrat whose central DeKalb district includes several neighborhoods where residents angry with the county are exploring cityhood. “At this point, it has to be on the table.”

Questions about the benefits of a CEO-style government have swirled for years. At issue is whether having an elected CEO, working with seven commissioners who represent smaller parts of DeKalb, breeds tension and invests too much power in the executive.

The highest elected official in the county, the CEO runs daily government operations and must sign off on contracts and other decisions from the commission. Advocates say the job is effectively that of a mayor, a powerful official held accountable by the entire county during elections. Opponents say moving to a professional manager would make the business of government less political and, they hope, more efficient.

Just days into the legislative session, there is no specific proposal filed or even floated that would let voters decide if they want to do away with the CEO.

The most likely alternative is a county manager hired by and answerable to the commission. A bill Oliver pre-filed to slow the creation of new cities, House Bill 22, could be amended to include changing the form of government. It has yet to be heard in committee.

Ellis and the other two surviving CEOs have repeatedly defended the structure, as have some state lawmakers such as state Rep. Howard Mosby, the Democrat who heads the county’s House delegation.

In an exclusive statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ellis said the system is designed to offer checks and balances in much the same way the federal government operates.

He cited the system for his first-term success in cutting $130 million from the county’s budget, in partnership with the commission.

“This is the hallmark of a healthy government that is acting in the best interest of the people,” Ellis said. “As this idea continues to come up, I will continue to remind our state elected officials and others that we are proud of the work we have accomplished in DeKalb County.”

But the question of power has become a hot topic since agents from DeKalb District Attorney Robert James’ office searched Ellis’ home and office Jan. 7 for evidence of bribery, bid-rigging and other crimes of political corruption.

Investigators also searched the home and office of Ellis’ former campaign manager, attorney Kevin Ross, seizing campaign contributions and county contracts with firms Ross represented after Ellis took office in 2009.

Neither Ellis nor Ross has been charged with a crime. Both deny any wrongdoing.

But that cloud, coupled with an accrediting agency recently placing the county school system on probation, has even supporters of the CEO form of government casting about for something that might improve DeKalb’s beleaguered image.

Liane Levetan said attacks on the CEO structure date back to her two terms in that office between 1993 and 2000. She remains a supporter of the system, saying county-manager governments do little more than shift the power to powerful commissioners. Neighboring Gwinnett County has seen indictments of county commissioners and suspicions of questionable relationships between elected officials and business leaders. A county manager runs Gwinnett.

“As a former CEO, I would say the main objective should be to bring whatever is going on to conclusion,” Levetan said. “Talking about changing the government is detrimental to what needs to be happening, which is bringing in new businesses and young families to this county.”

Emory Morsberger, president of the Stone Mountain Community Improvement District, agrees that state and county officials should be working to bring economic development to DeKalb. But he said he and other business leaders believe the only way to do that is to eliminate the tension and questions about the CEO form of government.

“A manager is a professional, not a politician,” Morsberger said. He said politicians “can still run for county chairman and the professional can help us move forward. That’s not happening now.”

So far, though, neither business leaders nor large numbers of residents have clamored for a change. Only lawmakers in central DeKalb say they’ve received voter pressure for change.

Voters in north DeKalb are more interested, it appears, in setting up and developing new cities. South DeKalb residents, meanwhile, seem suspicious about the revived talk.

And south DeKalb is home to the House member and state senator who head DeKalb’s legislative delegations and would most likely need to shepherd any proposal to fruition.

“Any time there is scandal, especially in political circles, it’s like chum in the water,” said state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur. “People come out and want to use it to advance their own personal agendas. If this was a real issue, we’d see a groundswell from the community that just isn’t there.”

If more residents, and not just political leaders, start talking, though, Jones said lawmakers will act. Others at the Capitol agreed.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, has long been an opponent of the CEO position. He openly advocates for it to be eliminated but said he has yet to hear of any meetings with voters demanding the change, even if more people appear to be paying attention after the DA’s public moves.

“There is more chatter about the issue because of the situation the current CEO finds himself in,” Jacobs said. “I think the people of DeKalb County might be inclined to do away with the CEO position if given a chance. They have to ask for that chance.”

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