Jeff Rader, DeKalb County District 2 Commissioner
With the indictment of Burrell Ellis, new calls have come for a shift to
a Commission/Manager form of government in DeKalb County. As with the CEO
form, there is no standard structure in Georgia enabling legislation, so the
“devil is in the details” on exactly what this means. To make a
judgement, it is important to look at all the mechanics of the “Organizational
Act” or Charter, identifying deficiencies and options for improvement.
Neither form is invulnerable to manipulation by elected or appointed officials,
so the real test is what’s in a Charter that informs the public on government
operations and makes it accountable to voters and taxpayers.
Governmental operations are complex, and they can affect your freedom, property
and welfare. Therefore you should be able to know in advance how you will
be treated by government, and be treated the same as others.
Unfortunately, many governmental processes are not formalized, and are subject
to the whims of individuals. The most egregious example of this is the
alleged manipulation of purchasing procedures for political gain, but it can
happen in the award of permits, employment, and the enforcement of laws and
regulations. DeKalb County needs an Administrative Procedures mandate
that will require County departments to formalize and document how they conduct
business and implement laws, and to adhere to those procedures. The
Charter restriction against adopting a purchasing code should be removed.
Elected and appointed officials are fond of touting their accomplishments, and
as in Lake Woebegon, everyone seems to see their accomplishments as above
average. What’s lacking is an objective third party with the skills and
resources to systematically evaluate DeKalb operations against best practices and
makes a public report of findings and recommendations for
improvement. Surprisingly, the current Charter provides that option
in the form of an Internal Auditor, but the Board of Commissioners has never
filled the position or funded operations. DeKalb County needs an
independent and mandatory Internal Auditor with a guaranteed budget.
Likewise, the ethical conduct of elected office is the foundation of
governmental legitimacy. DeKalb County has a state-mandated Board of
Ethics, but it has been neglected and underfunded by the County
government. DeKalb’s Ethics Board should be strengthened by shifting the
power of appointment away from the officials who the Ethics Board oversees, and
by giving the Ethics Board a guaranteed budget equal to at least twenty-five
cents for each of DeKalb’s 700,000 persons. A quarter per capita is a small
price to pay for an effective ethics watchdog.
County governments are too small and too important to operate on a partisan
basis. Partisan alignment disenfranchises large minorities in
jurisdictions where elections are determined in the primary. The election
of all County offices should be non-partisan.
Commission district boundaries, like those of the General Assembly and Congress
are the object of increasingly effective gerrymandering. As in these
other bodies, the result is entrenched incumbency, political polarization and a
general disaffection with government as representative of the common
interest. DeKalb should have an objective redistricting protocol that creates
compact districts with common communities of interest.
As mentioned at the start, the details of an improved Charter are important and
complex. In many other states (and increasingly in new DeKalb
cities) charter review is accomplished by a “Charter Commission”, an
independent group of leading citizens with expert staff, but in Georgia, such
changes are often accomplished by local legislative delegations in the course
of the 40-day legislative session. The DeKalb delegation should empanel and
fund (using County tax dollars) a Charter Commission to work for a year to
draft a revised DeKalb County Organizational Act for legislative approval in
All these suggestions, and not a word about CEO vs. Commission/Manager!
That’s because the improvement of government is not so much about how
politicians divide power between themselves, but is instead about how
accountable those politicians are to the public that elects them. If
voters don’t insist that accountability be strengthened, the CEO/Commission
Manager debate won’t matter much at all.