Two days after his landslide victory, Brookhaven mayor-elect John Ernst was mostly catching up on rest after a long campaign. But he also was preparing to put his promises of transparency and city unity into practice when he takes office on Jan. 4.
“Communicate with me when you have a problem,” Ernst said, summing up his message to Brookhaven residents.
“Ideas…cannot come from just the top down. I need to hear from citizens. It’s a two-way street. That’s the way we can unify and bring the city together.”
Ernst took 88 percent of the vote on Nov. 3 in defeating Dale Boone for the mayor’s seat left open when incumbent Rebecca Chase Williams dropped out of the race. A former chair of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics, Ernst ran as a reformer, and some of his plans for his administration retain his campaign’s flavor, like when he says he’ll be “taking the politics out of the paving schedule.”
Town hall forums are one way Ernst said he will seek citizen input and ideas. Brookhaven officials have held town halls before, but he said they’ve often been at inconvenient times and with a format “more about preaching what they’ve done and how great they are.”
Despite such lingering criticisms, both Ernst and Williams say they will be working together to ensure a “smooth transition” of leadership. “John is a bright fellow and I look forward to working with him…I look forward to his leadership,” said Williams, who made an appearance at Ernst’s Election Night party.
Brookhaven established its mayor position as a part-time job that pays $16,000 a year. Ernst, an attorney, will continue running his legal practice while in office. His legal work involves real estate closings, bankruptcies and personal injury cases, and none of his current clients would present him with a conflict of interest as mayor, he said.
“I don’t foresee any problems, and if there [were], I’d recuse myself,” Ernst said.
Ernst will have one big campaign promise to move on quickly: a property tax cut. He said the main proposal is to give a millage rate reduction to all homeowners and “start shifting the [tax] burden from the homeowners to the commercial property base.”
In addition, he proposes a $5,000 property assessment cut for everyone aged 65 and older.
Another promise was to “spearhead a Brookhaven BeltLine,” a reference to Atlanta’s famous linear park and trail system. Ernst acknowledges that’s essentially just a new name for Brookhaven’s park and trail plans already underway. He said his promise is more about stirring enthusiasm for the public to go beyond planning and funding, and build the systems.
“While I think it’s a good idea, it’s really going to take citizens to come together,” he said. “I talk about [city] unity in my message. This would be a physical unity.”
Ernst is interested in more regional government unity, too. He said he is aware of the recent communications problems between the city and DeKalb County on such issues as tax abatements and funding for a new Brookhaven Library.
“Maybe I’m not the most popular person down in Decatur [the county seat] because of my [former] position with the board of ethics,” Ernst said, but added, “It’s a different time and different people here. I’m willing to work with any people to solve our problems without demonizing either side.
“I hope to have better relations with not just DeKalb, but also with Chamblee, Dunwoody, Doraville,” he continued. “Especially with Chamblee, it has been very strained, and Dunwoody, it’s been strained.”
Ernst’s administration also may bring change to the mayor and City Council’s meetings. Ernst said he’s well aware that
those twice-monthly meetings can last eight hours and place much key discussion in an afternoon “work session.”
“People have talked to me about it. [Some] council members have talked to me about it,” Ernst said, adding that any changes would need full council input. “There’s lots of ways to have as much public participation as possible and have feedback.”
While Ernst won’t take office for several weeks, he may continue to hold coffee hours in the neighborhoods, and he can be contacted through the “Neighbors for John Ernst” page on Facebook or through his website at votejohnernst.com.