DeKalb works through a rough spot

Moderated by Rick Badie

Recent woes in DeKalb County government compel us to ask: What’s the business climate like in the state’s third-largest county? And where does it go from here as it relates to better governance and economic progress? Today’s guest writers dissect the issue.

Money plays central role in scandal

By William Perry

It’s not just scandals or controversy at the state level that keeps our ethics watchdog group busy. By far, most phone calls and emails we receive with cries for help are from citizens about local governments. And those calls are not just from the metro Atlanta area; they come from all corners of the state.

Be it a conflict of interest, rumors of special favors or accusations of outright bribery, most complaints we receive have to do with the role of money in politics. Whether controversial actions are legal due to weak laws or blatantly illegal, money always plays a part, if not the central role, in scandals. That’s why we need laws or ordinances restricting the influence of money in politics, as well as greater oversight of the spending of taxpayer dollars.

Even the most optimistic of us know that is a tall order. While I believe 99 percent of our elected officials are honest, there are very few willing to stand up and question the spending habits of colleagues or pro-actively introduce legislation to tighten controls.In the midst of the pay-to-play trial of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, the prison time being served by former Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lassiter for accepting bribes, and the absurd payouts of sick leave and vacation time to top administrators by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, there are a handful of heroes willing to stand up and push back.

Atlanta Council Member Felicia Moore was the lone voice challenging the appropriateness and legality of payouts to top officials in Reed’s administration. Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell attempted to limit the influence of campaign contributions from current contractors and those seeking contracts with the county by introducing a strong pay-to-play ordinance. Fayette County Commission Chair Steve Brown has led a voluntary but strong lobbyist meal and gift ban for that body.

And one example that deserves further explanation is DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader and his push for a county auditor.

Last year, Rader introduced legislation to expedite the hiring of an auditor. Certainly, the accusations against Ellis warranted hiring one sooner rather than later. Rader’s legislation was opposed by a commission majority led by Elaine Boyer and Sharon Barnes-Sutton.

With Boyer recently resigning from office in disgrace after admitting to the FBI that she committed wire and mail fraud related to her expense account, to the tune of $93,000, and with Barnes-Sutton being accused of $34,000 in payments from her office budget to her boyfriend for “political consulting,” we can conclude their opposition was likely guided by their own actions.

In a state that ranks 50th in the nation on the strength of our ethics laws, and with these and other scandals across the state, it would seem easy to find more elected officials who stand tall like the good examples listed above. Unfortunately, most leaders we elect in this state, while honest, do not take on issues that those in power or who abuse the system refer to as “do-gooder” legislation. We suffer from a real lack of public officials with enough intestinal fortitude to step up and say that they and their colleagues need greater oversight and stricter controls.

Common Cause Georgia will keep pushing for legislation to require local governments to limit the temptation of money in politics that lead to abuse and corruption. We will continue to highlight, applaud and support the efforts of those at the local level who stand up for what is needed. But our best hope is for the people of our great state to demand more policing of themselves from our elected leaders at the state level and, crucially, in local government. We deserve better.

William Perry is executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

Progress hasn’t been stifled

By Katerina Taylor

Through effective partnerships, strategic collaborations and a service-focused approach for success, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce is confident and excited about the future. Despite recent criticisms and challenges within the community, the momentum shown by local businesses, chamber investors and residents prove progression has not been halted.

The sentiment, “there is always room for improvement,” holds true for many, and the DeKalb Chamber is no different. Just under two years ago, the chamber fielded concerns from local leaders about the ease of doing business in DeKalb.

The county has committed an investment of updated technology and human capital to address the business community’s permitting pain points. The county launched the Permitting Improvement Project to make the licensing, permitting and approval process more efficient for customers and the government.

We join the DeKalb County government in its commitment to consistently share and promote strengths within the community. By being transparent and telling our story, our goal is to reignite excitement around business recruitment and retention so residents and onlookers will discover a new DeKalb.

As Georgia gets more national and international attention, the county has mapped out a course that will leverage the excitement around business recruitment and retention and, more importantly, highlight the greatness in this county.

The chamber was in full support of the intergovernmental agreement that allowed the DeKalb Development Authority to become its own entity and offer greater flexibility in facilitating new business deals and a more inviting atmosphere for businesses looking to build or relocate to the county. To further show our support of this more focused economic development model, the chamber developed a monthly economic development e-newsletter, where our partners can provide updated content and information to the DeKalb community.Another example is the newly designed Workforce Enhancement (WE) DeKalb program. Through WE DeKalb, if you work for a DeKalb-based employer but do not live in the county, you can qualify for a 5 percent down payment grant for a primary dwelling in DeKalb. It’s the first program of its kind in the country.

Once launched, WE DeKalb will help develop competitive incentives for business prospects. That will lead to an increased workforce, community growth and overall progression for the county.

In addition, the county’s 2020 Vision has received positive feedback and shared enthusiasm from the community and business leaders. However, it is most rewarding to know that after critiquing our own practices and programs, the chamber has a greater understanding why it is important to develop integrated strategies versus isolated programs.

Collaboration and partnership, and highlighting resources of community partners, make the chamber a place of access for DeKalb. By taking a more unified approach, we have provided more value to our members, giving them greater confidence in our ability as their business, government and community liaison.

Our eagerness as a chamber to create a strategy more aligned with the community’s needs has also strengthened our educational partnerships with the DeKalb County school system and technical colleges. Through actions being taken by our school board, I am confident DeKalb will once again be a premier location for educational advancement.

Although it is not often talked about, there is great work being done in DeKalb County. The angst of our lack of transparency or government structure certainly creates caution for community and business members. However, as we work toward our goals, we will continually learn from our mistakes and offset the concerns of observers with positive reinforcement. We cannot allow negative attention to stifle progression.

DeKalb County is positioning itself for innovation and future results.

Katerina Taylor is interim president of the DeKalb Chamber.

Assets to grow economy

By Dane Anderson

Any good economist will tell you a community, at its most elemental state, is a living, breathing organism of people, businesses, schools, government, ideas and a collective hope for the future. To understand a community, especially one as diverse as DeKalb County, it is important to get a close-up view.

AngelouEconomics has worked with more than 600 cities, counties, states and countries during the last 19 years, helping each look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that make them unique.

During the last year, AE studied DeKalb and helped leaders develop an economic strategic plan for the future. We interviewed more than 200 residents and businesses owners and surveyed nearly 2,000 additional stakeholders. We spoke with business leaders, neighborhood groups, commissioners, government leaders, restaurant owners, moms, dads, public education directors and university leaders.

What we got was an objective and reliable portrait of DeKalb – where it’s from and where it’s headed. We learned DeKalb is a diverse community with a rich history, a county with many important assets to draw upon and a number of issues to address.

We also learned that, while the county has been well-tracked for its problems with corruption and crime in recent years, little media coverage has been given to what the county is doing right. There is a puzzling lack of coverage documenting the remarkable steps the county is taking to overcome its struggle with poverty and related crime and the advances it is making to plan for a better future.

In the last year alone, DeKalb has accomplished many things. Permitting processes have been significantly improved to help businesses operate more efficiently. New and expanded businesses mean more jobs and less poverty.The county has partnered with the Development Authority of DeKalb County to compete in the world economy. The authority has a new strategic plan to help existing businesses grow and to attract industries. That plan is being reviewed by the Board of Commissioners.

DeKalb has an abundance of assets with which to grow its economy. It has an ideal strategic location in metro Atlanta, with access to numerous highways and rail and air transportation options. DeKalb has several Community Improvement Districts, including the Tucker-Northlake, Perimeter, East Metro and Stone Mountain CIDs. Tourism can grow if centered on historical sites such as Arabia Mountain and Stone Mountain Park.

Exceptional higher education institutions call DeKalb home, including Emory, Mercer, Oglethorpe and DeVry universities, as well as Agnes Scott, Georgia Perimeter and other colleges. The county also is home to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DeKalb County will struggle with many tough issues on its road to economic success. It will be important for stakeholders to shoulder responsibility and work together to solve those issues and guarantee a bright future.

Dane Anderson is project manager at AngelouEconomics.

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