Jeff Rader
Jeff Rader

With the indictment of DeKalb CEO 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 inform opinion, 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 Wobegon, 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 25 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 2015.

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.

Jeff Rader represents District 2 on the DeKalb County Commission.