Sunday Issue: DeKalb County government

Working toward better governance

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 should 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.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

 

Working to regain trust in DeKalb

By Lee May
The past few years have been tough ones for DeKalb County. It is outrageous that anyone would violate the public’s trust, and it is frustrating to realize that our county has refused in years past to identify and correct bad behaviors. It is maddening that the people of DeKalb have had to endure a shaming of DeKalb County government over the actions of a few. The truth, as they say, hurts.
For years, DeKalb CEOs have looked the other way when it came to Board of Commissioners (BOC) spending. The BOC, of which I have been a member since 2006, talked a good game of auditing and oversight, but when the rubber met the road, could not reach a consensus on  hiring someone to do the job.
Part of the issue that caused these problems is inherent in DeKalb’s structure of government, which before now has produced a laissez-faire style of oversight. Elected officials simply cannot control other elected officials in the same way an employer can control an employee. This is one reason I have been an advocate for changing DeKalb’s form of government, and why I created the Government Operations Task Force: to deal with this issue and several others DeKalb is facing. I expect  that this task force will make substantial recommendations to our government which will provide a framework on which we all become accountable.
However, the larger issue has been a wholesale lack of leadership to work together to become the open, transparent and responsive government that we all say that we want.
I share the collective frustration of our residents. The practice of government in DeKalb County has allowed much of what has been exposed recently by the AJC and others to go unchecked. To address the issues, this administration implemented several safeguards and oversight to find incidences of wrongdoings and address them quickly.
We have taken the following direct actions  to address the malaise we find ourselves in at the present moment :
1. Facilitated appointments of a full complement of Board of Ethics members to ensure consistent quorums.
2. Increased Ethics Board funding from $15,000 to over $200,000
3. Created full-time positions: Chief Integrity Officer, Investigator, and staff for the Board of Ethics.
4. Increased funding for the District Attorney’s office by $197,000 to expand its Public Integrity Unit.
5. Revised P-Card policies to cover all cardholders, including elected officials, which requires annual training and annual audits of all cardholders.
6. Revised purchasing policies to make the process for purchasing goods and services more efficient and transparent and created a list to ban vendors who violate our policies or fail to complete work.
7. Restructured the Purchasing and Contracting and Finance departments to provide greater oversight and transparency.
8. Implemented a new ethics policy for the administration to cover meals, travel and tickets for all employees under the CEO’s power, including myself.
Admittedly, these changes have only occurred under my administration and only affect conduct moving forward. Much of the spending irregularities discovered by the AJC, Channel 2 Action News and others date back several years and cover multiple administrations. Those cases are now being investigated by federal prosecutors, the local district attorney and the DeKalb Board of Ethics. In due time, these agencies will take appropriate actions as needed. Furthermore, we will be taking additional measures as circumstances warrant.
Make no mistake: I am, and I remain, very concerned about improper and illegal spending in DeKalb County. The repercussions go far beyond the acts themselves. It impacts everything from job creation and business recruitment to federal funding allocations. It is imperative that all elected officials, myself included, continue to do everything possible to correct the underlying problems and restore the public’s trust in DeKalb County government. It takes years to build trust, but only a day to destroy it. Our job moving forward is to restore that trust, day by day, in DeKalb County.

Lee May is interim CEO in DeKalb County.

 

ON THE RECORD

From an Aug. 26 AJC story:
Former DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer: “I’ve betrayed the people and I’ve abused my position of power, “ she told Channel 2 Action News in an exclusive interview. “It’s a very hard decision, and I’m heartbroken and saddened, but I need to resign, “ she said.

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader: “It’s a sad end to a long career in public office, but I think she did the right thing.” “This now gives the voters in District 1 the opportunity to choose new representation and help to restore confidence in DeKalb County government.”

From a Sept. 5 AJC story:
William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia: “If an elected official is going to jail, it sends a strong message.” “Essentially, her political career is over. She can do no further harm to voters.”

DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, now on trial for bribery, theft, extortion and perjury charges, from a January YouTube video, since removed from that site: “I have never stolen nor profited from my public service.” “I believe that what is right will always reveal itself in the end.”

DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker, during a sentencing hearing that resulted in jail or prison terms for a former DeKalb schools superintendent, a high-ranking manager in the district and her ex-husband: “Punishment is appropriate and necessary when we are dealing with public trust.”

From the Aug. 28 AJC
Former DeKalb County ethics board chairman Isaac Blythers, who reviewed AJC findings about payments by DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, to her then-boyfriend Warren Mosby. Blythers suggested the payments may have created the appearance that the money benefited her: “That’s the perception, “ he said. “If I’m an elected official, and I’m in a relationship with them, then it’s less than an arm’s length transaction.”

Sharon Barnes Sutton, responding by phone to WSB: “It does not matter, “ Sutton said. “Mr. Mosby is not a member of my family.”


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