Redefine DeKalb

Moderated by Rick Badie

DeKalb County residents are sick of a government seemingly ripe with accusations of malfeasance and poor oversight. We turn today’s page over to two groups that want to spark change. Blueprint DeKalb leaders outline their suggestions for government transparency and reform that include creation of an internal auditor to watch over taxpayer money. Also, the founder of the South DeKalb Improvement Association explains an “Economic Bill of Standards” drafted for that part of the county. The third column continues last week’s discussion of our “do-nothing” Congress.

Redefine DeKalb

By Patricia Killingsworth and Gil Turman

The Blueprint to Redefine DeKalb proposes initial reforms for rebuilding citizens’ trust and confidence in DeKalb County government. Until the cloud of corruption and lack of transparency in government operations are eliminated, county actions and decisions will be suspect. Citizens must demand DeKalb government move to an ethical and transparent higher ground.

Three of our four recommendations represent best practices that have been proven to save tax dollars, ensure transparency and prevent corruption. The key Blueprint concepts call for modifying the organizational act to:

• Create an independent, sustainable, professional and comprehensive internal audit function. Many local governments have this function to improve operations, investigate abuses and recommend solutions. The chief audit executive must be independent from the CEO and commissioners and should report to an independent body, such as a citizens oversight committee. To be sustainable and comprehensive, the internal audit department’s budget should be mandated funding as a percentage of the annual county budget. The internal audit function should be professional and demonstrate consistent use of best practices by following guidelines of the Institute of Internal Auditors, Georgia Society of Certified Public Accountants and Association of Local Government Auditors.

• Strengthen the Board of Ethics. In recent months, nearly every DeKalb citizen has recognized the importance of this board and the ways the appointment process has disrupted its ability to operate. The board cannot be appointed by the commissioners and CEO without becoming a pawn in the political process. To restore public trust, the Board of Ethics should be independently appointed by a panel of civic and professional organizations; made up of individuals with experience in ethics, law, finance or relevant subjects, and protected against budget constraints by mandated funding as a percentage of the annual county budget. It should educate all individuals subject to its jurisdiction regarding ethical behavior.

• Establish checks and balances over the management of the procurement process. Currently, all procurement policies are under the sole jurisdiction of the CEO, which allows for unilateral changes to procedures without consulting or notifying anyone, including the commissioners. This broad assignment of power can lead to abuses. DeKalb spends more than $200 million annually on contracts established by the procurement department, an enormous sum lacking appropriate oversight by the legislative branch of county government. The process for awarding contracts must be fair, consistent, transparent and efficient. Recently, a highly critical third-party study and a special grand jury called for reforms in this crucial area. The organizational act should permit the commissioners to adopt the procurement procedures in county ordinances to provide clear, enforceable law.

The final recommendation — for term limits for the Board of Commissioners and school board — is admittedly controversial. The Blueprint suggests placing a straw poll on the ballot to advance the discussion. Consider that an incumbent DeKalb commissioner has not lost an election since 1992, when Elaine Boyer beat Jean Williams. The reason: Incumbents have an enormous advantage in name recognition and fundraising. These advantages are barriers to those wanting to enter public service. DeKalb benefits every time a well-qualified, talented leader steps up, yet the power of incumbency is a deterrent.

Most of all, DeKalb needs engaged citizens. Ultimately, we citizens are responsible for our government. The Blueprint DeKalb team encourages you to become involved in government. Please endorse the blueprint on our website (www.BlueprintDeKalb.org). Contact elected officials to insist on effective reforms. Primarily, get involved and help us begin to restore trust and pride in DeKalb County.

Patricia Killingsworth and Gil Turman are members of Blueprint DeKalb’s leadership team.

South DeKalb sets standards

By Kathryn Rice

People have said to me within the last year that if they could move from south DeKalb County, they would do so because of what they perceive as a “decline” in the environment. What stops them is their housing values are so low, they cannot afford to take the loss. My message to them: Don’t leave! Now is the time to stay.

The seeds of change are being planted, and some are already showing forth lovely little buds. Leaving now is like leaving the stock market when it’s hit bottom and has begun the climb up. If your stocks go down but you don’t sell, and they then go back up, you’ve never really lost your value. So, I’m here to say the southern part of DeKalb is on its way up. If you leave now, you lose your investment.

A relatively unknown but telling indicator of change is the Economic Bill of Standards — a document conceived, written and vetted by community residents to set standards to improve the region’s appearance and attract business. It began as a project of the South DeKalb Improvement Association’s Economic Development Committee.

In March, the committee explored community benefit agreements — an agreement between developers, local government and residents about standards and benefits for the community from a particular project. Committee members wanted to develop an agreement with the East Metro DeKalb Community Improvement District, but it was still forming.

While the committee was exploring a project for 2014, two South DeKalb board members, David George and Ken Taylor, approached two major retailers to ask them to better maintain their premises. Based on the cooperative attitude of George and Taylor, a positive relationship began. The stores made changes to improve their appearance.

South DeKalb’s Economic Development Committee wanted to reach out to mom-and-pop stores, medium-sized franchises and big-box stores to let them know we residents care about how they look. We want dumpsters behind stores without overflowing; premises maintained and free of litter; and painting, curbs, signs, lighting, sidewalks and so forth kept up.

The idea for a Bill of Standards emerged from an expansion of the community benefits agreements concept to what committee members wanted from all businesses.

To improve the economic environment, we didn’t stop at what could be seen, but what would be attractive to residents and businesses. Sparkling spaces attract consumers who, in turn, attract businesses. Diversity of restaurants, encouragement of entrepreneurship, green and sustainable buildings, job training to produce quality employees and more became a part of the standards. We began to describe our economic dream. This is the beginning; we’ll add more as we move forward.

South DeKalb’s Economic Development Committee, its board and residents reviewed the standards at an August community forum. We set a goal of 1,000 signatures to show everyone we care and that this is what we want to see in and near neighborhoods.

The Economic Bill of Standards is not binding. But it is what we will ask for, what we will work from and what we expect for our neighborhoods and communities.

We ask that you sign the petition. It benefits the whole region if South DeKalb is clean. View the standards and show your support by clicking on or copying the following link: http://chn.ge/ZMTVee.

The seeds of community involvement, commercial attraction and improved appearance are emerging and changing our environment. Those lovely buds are people exercising their voice, demanding standards and, eventually, creating change.

Kathryn Rice is founder of the South DeKalb Improvement Association.

Republicans hinder process

By Julian E. Zelizer

One of the most notable aspects of the recent Secret Service scandal revolves around money and the state of Congress.

It is clear the Secret Service has been starving for funds. It has not been able to hire enough qualified agents, and it has been constantly short-staffed. Given that the agency is stretched thin, still handling its older counterfeiting responsibilities and new homeland security missions, protecting the president is becoming harder to do.

Insufficient funding is not an excuse for the mistakes that allowed an intruder to enter the East Room, but it has been a relevant factor in the sloppiness the nation has witnessed.

This budgetary problems of the Secret Service are one small, significant effect of the contentious and gridlocked political era in which we live. Congress has been remarkably unproductive by almost every measure. Legislators have not ensured sufficient funding for many of our existing government programs, let alone for the creation of anything new. Congress is on track to pass less legislation than any other in modern history. Talk about a “Do Nothing” Congress is a popular theme.

Yet pundits and politicians make a mistake when they simply blame this problem on partisan polarization and claim that Republicans and Democrats need to stop bickering and get along. The research is clear that everything is not equal: The Republican Party bears more responsibility for the failure of Congress to produce bills than the Democrats.

In 2012, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann made this case in their book, “It’s Even Worse than It Looks,” which shows the GOP has been much more willing to employ “obstructionist” tactics such as the filibuster and sequestration threats.

This imbalance shouldn’t be a surprise. The GOP has been under the control of an aggressive generation of Republicans skilled at tying up the legislative process. These Republicans have been determined to undercut the power of liberals on Capitol Hill and shrewd enough to understand that by “doing nothing” in Congress, things go their way.

Democrats are not blameless. They filibuster with the best of their colleagues and obstruct legislation as well as appointments when Republicans have been in the White House. Democrats also accept the broken campaign finance system that empowers lobbyists and interest groups to protect the status quo.

But congressional Republicans are more willing than their counterparts to use existing procedural tools to stop productivity. Democrats have more to lose when government doesn’t work. The concept of a “Do Nothing” Congress is a myth.

When Congress doesn’t take action on major issues of the day, it is in fact taking action — action often biased toward conservative goals. If government agencies don’t receive proper funding, those agencies won’t be able to do their jobs well. If initiatives such as the minimum wage are not updated to meet current needs, they lose their value. If the federal government doesn’t devote more resources to problems like climate change, government regulation doesn’t become part of the way in which the nation deals with those issues; they will be left to the free market, for better or worse.

Democrats have a huge stake in the midterm elections and in 2016. Though a Democrat has inhabited the White House, congressional Republicans have been enormously effective at using legislative power to constrain his impact. Until Democrats can start to really weaken the hold of Republicans on the House of Representatives — and to create enough political pressure on younger Republicans to embrace a more cooperative style of politics — the conservative character of Capitol Hill won’t change.

Julian E. Zelizer, a CNN contributor, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

 


View Comments 0