What Would Eliminating CEO Role Mean for DeKalb County?
(APN) ATLANTA — State legislators, Gov. Nathan Deal, and many DeKalb County citizens are calling for changes to DeKalb County’s charter, to eliminate the CEO position entirely and move towards more of a county manager model.
State Rep. Scott Holcomb (D – Atlanta) has stated his plans to introduce legislation to eliminate the CEO position, although he did not return several inquiries from Atlanta Progressive News seeking comment.
DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester (District 1) also supports eliminating the position, in favor of a professional county manager. Even Interim CEO Lee May himself has publicly stated he supports the elimination of his own position.
Jeff Long, founder of Reform DeKalb, supports the calls for Lee May to resign and a shift to a professional county manager.
“Accountability always should start at the top. And in this case, that would be the CEO position,” Long told Atlanta Progressive News.
Meanwhile, others express doubt at whether changing the government structure will solve the problem.
“You can reorganize the government all you want. If you don’t find out what is wrong and if there is any criminal activity going on, you’re only rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” activist Viola Davis told APN.
Long-time DeKalb County resident Faye Coffield, a private investigator who formerly worked for U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), spoke about the need to “replace people instead of changing positions.”
“There will be controversy no matter what type of government you have. So with that said, I say keep what we have, just put somebody in [the CEO position] who is qualified,” Coffield said.
Eliminating the CEO position is no small undertaking. The State Legislature controls the governance structure of all counties, and must pass legislation to make any changes to DeKalb’s Charter.
During the 2007-2008 Legislative Session, State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) authored legislation to de-power the CEO position, after a previous charter revision gave extensive powers to the CEO.
Voters subsequently ratified this legislation in a referendum, giving authority to the DeKalb County Commission to set their own agenda and chair their own meetings.
Eliminating or changing the CEO position, which has been in place since 1981, would require a similar process.
It is not clear yet if the DeKalb County delegates are all in agreement about the best way forward.
“That is something I’d have to take a really, really hard look and see what the alternatives are. Replacing one system with another without any substantive changes isn’t going to do a whole lot,” Sen. Jones told APN, when asked about supporting Rep. Holcomb’s planned legislation to eliminate the CEO position.
A county executive position, like that of CEO, is elected by voters and has authority to act independently of the commissioners in several areas.
In addition to veto powers, the DeKalb County charter lays out additional responsibilities for the CEO, including: the “power to change, consolidate, or abolish any departments, agencies, or offices over which the chief executive exercises supervision and control…” (subject to approval by the commission);
“exclusive authority to appoint, remove, and fix the compensation of all employees and officials of the county…”; and
“establish rules to regulate purchasing for all county departments, offices, and agencies of the county government…”.
The CEO also has more ambiguously defined duties, like, “improve the government of the county and encourage the growth of the county…,” and “develop the prosperity and well-being of the citizens….”.
The Georgia City/County Managers Association (GCCMA) sells the position of an appointed county manager as concentrating political power “in the entire governing body rather than one elected official.” In DeKalb County’s case, that governing body is the Board of Commissioners.
In principle, the elected Board of Commissioners would hold all the power, with an experienced, professional county manager being accountable to this elected body and responsible for carrying out the day-to-day activities of the county.
This position is intended to be impartial, merely carrying out the administration of government as directed by the Commission.
Forty-three percent of U.S. counties have an appointed administrator, with the overwhelming majority of these positions being, “county board appointed,” according to the National Association of Counties (NACO).
In Georgia, that number is substantially higher, with 77 percent of Georgia counties opting for an appointed county administrator, rather than an elected county executive. The administrator positions are equally divided between positions with high levels of authority and mid-level authority.
According to a report based on data from 2013 prepared by Georgia State University for DeKalb County, DeKalb stands out in the Metro Atlanta area as having an elected CEO model.
Fulton County and Cobb County both have county managers, while Gwinnett County has an appointed administrator.
The report notes that Multnomah County, Oregon, which is comparable in size to DeKalb, is one county that does have an elected CEO position.
Georgia state law authorizes counties to appoint county administrators, with counties given the ability to set the job duties and responsibilities of the position.
A county administrator is often appointed by and accountable to the Board of Commissioners. This position is often modeled as a professional position, with requirements that candidates have certain educational achievements and relevant experience managing local governments.
It is important to note that DeKalb County already has an appointed county administrator.
Zach Williams, the Executive Assistant and Chief Operating Officer for DeKalb County, operates in a role similar to that of an appointed county manager.
DeKalb County’s Organizational Act describes Williams’ position as follows: “The executive assistant… shall be responsible to the chief executive and the commission for the proper administration of the affairs of the county.”
DeKalb’s Executive Assistant position is nominated by the CEO and confirmed by the Commission, with dual reporting and accountability requirements to both the CEO and BOC.
Thus, for DeKalb County, the proposed changes would not create the county manager position anew, but it would change the nomination process by giving that power to the Board of Commissioners.
An appointed county manager “would bring professionalism to the operation, the daily operations of the County,” Long of Reform DeKalb said.
“Whether we have a county administrator who is appointed by the Board, or whether we have just an elected head Commissioner like a lot of the counties do, I think that we just bring more accountability to that position and allow us, the taxpayers, to be able to react when we see things that we don’t like,” Long said, in support of eliminating the CEO position.
Short of seeking to eliminate the position, Sen. Jones cited several areas worth changing related to the powers of the CEO position.
“We’ve got to look at the responsibility the CEO has in approving or disapproving contracts,” Sen. Jones said, adding that the CEO’s control over hiring policies and department structures was also an area of concern.
“I welcome the opportunity to work with Rep. Holcomb and other members of the delegation to see what is really best for the county,” Sen. Jones said.