Toward better governance

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

Even the wildest of free falls eventually stops, suddenly or otherwise. We hope that’s the case for the woes bedeviling DeKalb County government.

A county of DeKalb’s size and economic influence deserves better. What residents have gotten instead are too many leaders who could’ve landed starring roles in those bad ‘70s fast-car-and-moonshine movies. The ones that lampooned the South and its public officials as being backward — and corrupt. That must change.

To be fair, DeKalb’s far from alone. The last decade’s unearthed a rogue’s gallery of corrupt public officials outside of DeKalb. Combined, their sorry behavior has shoved public opinion away from a healthy skepticism of government and toward a corrosive civic cynicism which threatens this region’s ability to get needed things done.

The latest examples of this sad phenomenon came to light, once again, as the result of dogged pickaxe-and-shovel work by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporters.

Persistent AJC inquiries into expense reports filed by DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer led late last month to an extraordinary, sad and fast sequence of events. Setting the scene were a pending FBI investigation into the commission’s discretionary spending and another inquiry by the county’s Board of Ethics.

First, Boyer, who’d marketed herself as a campaigner for fiscal conservatism, abruptly resigned. She told Channel 2 Action News Aug. 25 that, “I’ve betrayed the people and I’ve abused my position of power.”

Boyer’s schemes bilked taxpayers out of at least $90,000. She made payments to a “consultant” who was actually a preacher from coastal Georgia. She then received kickbacks from those monies. Boyer also used a county Visa card to pay for family travel and other personal expenses.

All of which resulted in Boyer’s appearance in a federal judge’s courtroom less than 10 days after resigning public office. On Sept. 3, she pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud and mail fraud conspiracy.

Regrettably, Boyer’s brand of behavior isn’t an isolated occurrence in DeKalb. .

AJC reporting found that DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton channeled more than $34,000 in county money to her then-boyfriend, with most of it paying for advice on how to run her office. Sutton and a top aide also earned the dubious honor among the seven commission offices of racking up the most Visa card expenses without having receipts for more than half of the $75,000 spent.

DeKalb taxpayers are well-justified in being angry at, and weary of, such fiscal non-accountability.

Yet, the beat goes on. DeKalb’s buttoned-down CEO Burrell Ellis went to trial last week on charges of bribery, theft, extortion and perjury. He stands accused of arm-twisting contractors for campaign contributors, using the threat of losing county business as a hammer to force companies to pay up.

Ellis and any other future defendants are certainly innocent until proven guilty. Either way, the county’s reputation has been significantly shredded as the allegations and legal action unfold.

And, while it didn’t involve elected officials, DeKalb was likewise wounded by the long-running legal maneuverings that ended with former DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleading guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice in yet another corruption scheme. He entered that plea to avoid the possibility of more than 65 years in prison if found guilty of more-serious charges.

As part of that same criminal investigation, DeKalb schools’ former chief operating officer, Pat Reid, and her ex-husband, Tony Pope, were sentenced to tough prison terms for racketeering and theft charges.

Thankfully, county schools seem to have stabilized under the leadership of seasoned politician Michael Thurmond, who stepped into the school superintendent job.

Given all this, many DeKalb residents are understandably disgusted with their government. Their anger’s fed a cityhood movement, which critics say threatens the financial stability of remaining unincorporated neighborhoods.

The ongoing back-and-forth over DeKalb’s future would have been more methodical, less emotional and would likely yield better end results if taxpayers hadn’t been so justifiably worried about antics in county government.

In the end, it’s up to residents to create better DeKalb government. Voting for the right candidates in future races is the easiest way to begin redirecting county governance. Doing so demands voters’ attention, diligence and involvement. Positive change will then follow.

As a central part of this metro, citizens should demand better of DeKalb’s government and vote to make it happen. Only then can the long slog toward rebuilding public trust really gain traction.

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