It’s time to put citizens and neighborhoods back in the driver’s seat of local government in DeKalb County.
On Thursday, November 29, I will hold a community-wide meeting on local government reform. This meeting will be held at 7:00 p.m. in the Talmage Room of the student center at Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road, in Brookhaven. Please tell your neighbors. I hope to see you there.
At the meeting, I will discuss two bills that will be introduced for the upcoming 2008 legislative session aimed at improving and fundamentally reshaping DeKalb governance.
One is a new township bill, to be co-sponsored by me and Representative Edward Lindsey of Buckhead, which would give DeKalb communities local control over planning, zoning, land use, building permits, code enforcement, and alcohol licenses, as well as put citizens in control over whether or not they would like to become a full-fledged city at a later date. I will discuss this proposal at greater length in an e-mail newsletter early next week. If this township legislation passes, I am interested in introducing a charter for a Township of Brookhaven, which will include the Brookhaven and North Brookhaven/Ashford Alliance areas, in the 2009 session of the General Assembly. I am open to doing the same in Toco Hills, another area I represent, if citizens are interested in it.
The other proposal is House Bill 899 (click for more information), the County Chief Executive Officer Accountability Act, which was filed in the House of Representatives this past Friday.
The form and structure of government in each county in Georgia is controlled by the General Assembly, not by the county itself. In DeKalb County, we have an elected chief executive officer (CEO) and county commission. The county commission, however, doesn’t have much power at all. The CEO presides over county commission meetings, sets the agenda for those meetings, votes in the event of a tie, possesses the power to veto legislation, directs the county staff, which serves at the CEO’s pleasure, and is responsible for the day-to-day administration of county services.
When considering the powers vested in the CEO, let’s take Vernon Jones out of the equation. That is an excessive amount of power to be vested in any single elected official. In a county of 710,000 people, it makes no sense to have a system where the elected county commissioners are completely marginalized. The system needs to be changed.
The county commission should be empowered to be an independent policy-making and oversight body, as is the case in most other counties in the State of Georgia. At a minimum, the CEO no longer should preside over, set the agenda for, or have a vote in county commission meetings. House Bill 899 would accomplish all of those things.
HB 899 also would eliminate the CEO’s power to veto ordinances and other measures passed by the county commission. Eliminating the CEO’s veto power would bring DeKalb closer to the traditional county manager form of government that exists in most other counties. Presently, all that is necessary for the CEO to frustrate the policy-making role of the county commission is three votes, which is the number of commissioners required to sustain a veto by the CEO. With all of the CEO’s power to decide how the county administration responds to concerns brought forward by an individual commissioner, it’s easy for the CEO to cobble together three votes on just about anything.
Although the CEO would argue that his position looks after all of DeKalb, with two “super district” county commissioners who each represent half of the county, and each represent portions of North, Central, and South DeKalb, there already are voices on the county commission that speak for large, diverse, non-regional swaths of the county. Nevertheless, I realize that eliminating the CEO’s veto power would be a sea change, and I am especially interested in public input on whether it should be included in this legislation.
Representatives Jill Chambers and Fran Millar will co-sponsor House Bill 899. As you can see from its wording, HB 899 is a statewide bill of general applicability. Unlike Senate Bill 52 and House Bill 894 (click for more information), two other attempts at achieving reform, it is not local legislation.
Local legislation requires the approval of a majority of the seven senators and nineteen representatives from DeKalb County. While there are four of seven senators who tend to support reforming DeKalb governance, only five of nineteen representatives can be counted on to support such reform. SB 52 and HB 894 face a steep uphill climb for this reason.
When reform is right, it doesn’t matter what procedure is used to achieve it. HB 899 will have to be approved in a 2008 countywide referendum in order to take effect in DeKalb. It ultimately will be up to the voters of DeKalb County to make the decision whether or not to strengthen the policy-making and oversight roles of our county commissioners.
The issue of reforming DeKalb’s governance structure has been around for more than a decade. Hopefully 2008 will be the year that we end autocratic “rule by CEO” in Georgia’s third largest county.