Hire a county manager

Since leaving the DeKalb County School Board in January — with some help from voters — I have made a concerted effort to withhold comment on public policy, especially in my home county. Recent discussion is causing me to break that silence.

Our public servants and leaders in county government, elected and appointed, come from a broad cross section of our community. They include business people, activists, lawyers, educators and others. Each can bring a different perspective to governing. We would hope they share one character trait: integrity.

We nominate and elect members of our community who we hope can make a difference. On the DeKalb County Commission and prior DeKalb School Board, recent grand jury and criminal investigations have found numerous alleged instances of interference and preferential treatment of county vendors and bidders and, at best, questionable decision-making practices.

Some current county commissioners suggest that to improve the ethical environment and reduce corruption and illicit influence in the selection of county vendors and contracts, a good first step would be to make county commission posts and pay full-time.

Our nation’s founders saw and practiced the policy of part-time lawmaking and governance, by part-time public servants, who then returned to their farms, businesses, law practices, etc. This structure gave us the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, and established the federal government and system of checks and balances that serve us today.

In the private and public sectors, higher compensation can draw better talent; but a bigger paycheck cannot and does not guarantee morality, integrity or sound decision-making. Nor does higher pay raise the bar for ethical behavior.

Having served two terms on the DeKalb School Board, including stints as chairman, finance chair and vice chairman, I can state that I was never in those roles for pay. The time and hours spent on those civic engagements often cost me more in business than an entire year’s board member’s salary. We do not need elected leaders who seek a paycheck.

Though many view Congress as a part-time job, members of the Senate and House are in fact employed year-round, as are their staffs. I remain a supporter of the system we have here in Georgia, where legislators are compensated for part-time work, and their legislative calendars are limited to 40 days a year.

In DeKalb County government, as well as our legislative delegation, considerable support appears to be building for a full-time county manager/county commission structure of local government, already in place in the majority of our 159 counties. If we are going to make such a shift from part time to full time, I’d rather start with a full-time county manager, overseen by seven part-time commissioners, than the other way around.

Paul Womack is a former DeKalb County School Board member.