Vernon Jones: DeKalb CEO's work ethic molded by childhood

Vernon Jones speaks with Brenda Foye Cornelius during his re-election kick off in this December 2003 photo. (KEITH HADLEY/Staff)
Caption
Vernon Jones speaks with Brenda Foye Cornelius during his re-election kick off in this December 2003 photo. (KEITH HADLEY/Staff)

Credit: KEITH HADLEY

Credit: KEITH HADLEY

This story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 8, 2001. 

On the biggest day of his political career, Vernon Jones looked into a crowd of thousands who had come to celebrate his inauguration and knew one person was missing.

It was his father, Robert Jones, who died little more than a year earlier while Jones was campaigning to become DeKalb County's chief executive officer.

The man he most admired. The World War II veteran who sent him to college on a mill worker's wages and veteran's benefits. The man who, more than anyone else, motivated him to work hard and succeed was gone.

"People who know me, know how close we were," said Jones, who still gets choked up when he talks about his father. "To deal with that during the campaign and then hide that feeling . . . That's one of the things I regret about being in politics, it takes a lot of time away from my family."

It may be the only thing.

In his first 100 days in office, Jones has taken DeKalb County by storm. Starting with a $125 million bond referendum he pushed to buy green space and improve county parks, which voters approved, Jones has in just a few short months, in the words of one county commissioner, "accomplished as much as anyone has in six or eight years."

Credit friendliness and an ability to communicate with anyone from garbage collectors to business executives and educators. Credit a keen political mind that has led him to surround himself with experienced and skilled advisers. But perhaps most of all, credit his drive that is fueled by humble beginnings in a rural North Carolina town called Laurel Hill.

At 6 feet 4 inches tall, Vernon Angus Jones stands out in a crowd. At work, he wears nothing but the finest tailored suits made by such designers as Armani and Hugo Boss. His black shoes are always polished to perfection.

For Jones, the clothes are a constant reminder of just how far he has come.

"When I was growing up in North Carolina, we didn't wear our shoes in the summertime because we were trying to save them," he deadpans. "By the time the fall came around, our feet had spread so much from walking around barefooted, the shoes didn't fit anymore."

His mother taught him to always look his best in public.

"Although we didn't have the finer things in life, if we had a pair of shoes on, my mother said make sure they're shiny. If you have a pair of jeans on, make sure they're pressed," Jones said.

That childhood lesson was put into practice just weeks after Jones took office as CEO. He saw a young intern walking the halls at the Maloof Administration Building and asked him why he wasn't wearing a tie. The intern, Corey Dozier, replied that he didn't own one.

"The next day he just showed up and surprised me with some ties he had," said Dozier, a 20-year-old DeVry student.

Jones implemented a dress code for all employees that prohibits jeans and T-shirts on the job and requires men to wear ties.

But his directives go beyond appearance. He wants county employees to act nice, too. He requires all who have contact with the public to take a two-hour class in customer service.

"They're serving as ambassadors, not just for the CEO, but for the whole county," Jones said.

Jones' county-issued vehicle, a black Ford Expedition, has gotten a lot of attention. But it's not the extravagance it might appear to be. It was bought at a reduced price of $27,000 through the state contracting office. The county equipped the SUV with a police blue light for emergencies --- Jones has yet to use it --- and a police officer normally drives him to functions. He is often joined by his communications director and sidekick, Lance Robertson.

While the March bond referendum --- which passed with almost 60 percent of the vote --- is the most tangible evidence of the new administration's success, Jones' accomplishments don't end there.

Perhaps most importantly, he has managed to win over a cynical County Commission that often fought with his predecessor, Liane Levetan. The friction between the former CEO and the board became so great that a grand jury, incensed over the poor conditions of the juvenile court building, recommended abolishing the existing structure of county government to make it less adversarial.

From the moment he was elected, Jones set out to make a difference. He did so simply by communicating with the board.

"He shares information. He gets input from the commissioners," said Commissioner Burrell Ellis. "I think the conflict that was in the past is nonexistent at the current time."

Jacqueline Scott, a commissioner since 1990, could not attend the first few meetings of the year because she was recuperating from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. Jones called her every other day to let her know what was happening.

"I was amazed," said Scott. "I've been in the hospital before, and I've had nobody from past administrations do that. A couple of times he sent some police officers over to pick me up."

Jones also has set out to learn as much as possible about every department of county government and its more than 6,000 employees. He spent one morning riding on the back of a garbage truck, emptying garbage cans. He inspected new homes with county inspectors and visited police precincts and fire stations.

But not all has been rosy for Jones, who honed his political skills and views during eight years in the state House of Representatives.

Republican state legislators, several of whom publicly supported Jones during his CEO campaign, were miffed when he asked for a pay raise for himself and the board of commissioners just two months into his county term. The move also angered some teachers who had sought a pay raise themselves.

A proposed 4.5 percent raise for teachers depended on a state House bill that would have lowered the amount DeKalb County charges the school system to collect school taxes. Jones lobbied against the bill because it would have cost the county about $3.8 million in revenue. Teachers will instead get a 3.5 percent raise.

"I'm very disappointed. We were one of the first organizations to support him in his race for CEO," said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators. "They're trying to balance the county budget on the backs of school children."

Some Republicans don't like that Jones has backed off a campaign pledge to preserve the 100 percent homestead exemption. In DeKalb, homeowners pay very little property taxes for government services. Instead, they pay the penny per dollar Homestead Option Sales Tax, known as HOST, at the cash register. Jones has said the county may have to lower the exemption if the economy goes sour and sales tax revenues decline. The 2001 budget preserves the 100 percent exemption.

"It surprises me that two months after he's done campaigning, he goes back on that promise," said state Sen. Bart Ladd (R-Doraville). "If anything, you try to hold the line as much as possible."

Others have been turned off by Jones' characteristic defensiveness that is unleashed when he is cornered in an argument. He has a knack for embarrassing people in public if they disagree with him. And he is not averse to reminding people who supported another candidate that they didn't vote for him.

"He doesn't want you to cross him," said DeKalb NAACP President John Evans, who campaigned against Jones' green space referendum. "It appeared that he just jumped in everybody's chest who didn't agree with him."

Contrast that image with one of Jones standing at one of numerous DeKalb intersections during morning rush hour waving an American flag. He has a broad smile on his face as he greets commuters with the words "What's up, DeKalb County," and gives them the thumbs up.

"I would wake him up at 5:30 a.m. and we would start about 6 a.m.," remembers communications director Robertson, who also worked on Jones' campaign.

"(Motorists) would honk their horns. They would flash their lights at us. County workers would pull over and share information with us," Robertson added. "They got so used to us being out there, they would get upset when we went somewhere else."

A master at self-promotion, Jones is now using that skill to promote DeKalb County.

When President Bush came to town last month to drum up support for his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, Jones introduced him to the crowd at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Before the visit, Jones operatives made it clear to the president's speech writers that the Fernbank was in DeKalb County.

When Bush arrived, he mentioned DeKalb County not once, but four times in his speech.

While Jones, who is 40 and single, avoids talking about his future in politics, supporters say it is bright. Yet they, too, are withholding judgment until after Jones has had a few years in office.

"There's absolutely no talk about what's next. It's about what's now," said Jonathan Shils, an attorney who worked on Jones' task force on ethics before he took office. The committee was charged with examining the county ethics code and offering suggestions on how to strengthen it. The final document was more than 100 pages long.

"He reminds me a lot of Bobby Kennedy running for president in 1968. He's a very gifted political person," Shils said.

Jones never mentioned his father's death in public during his campaign. Privately, it tore at him.

His father had been injured in World War II and, like all black veterans, returned to a country that still treated him as a second-class citizen. Robert Jones actually was half African-American and half Native American, a descendant of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina.

Ruth Jones had six children, Vernon was the fifth. Their home had no indoor plumbing. And though her husband worked in a textile mill and tended a small family farm, it was barely enough to keep everybody fed and clothed.

Jones believes he's finally paying his parents back for all of their hard work.

"They made so many sacrifices, it would be in vain if I didn't go out there and take advantage of opportunities that came my way," Jones said. "That's what drives me every morning."