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Decatur will consider shifting to a directly elected mayor during charter review

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Decatur will consider shifting to a directly elected mayor during charter review

Decatur City Hall. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Decatur, GA — The city of Decatur will be reviewing its charter, and as part of the process will consider shifting to a system with a directly elected mayor.

Currently, the city commission has five seats – two seats from District 1, two seats from District 2 and an at-large seat. Unlike some other cities, Decatur’s mayor is selected by their fellow commissioners at the commission’s first meeting of the year.

The Decatur City Commission discussed the topic during its annual retreat on Jan. 5-6 and decided to begin looking at the process at the end of the year.

“Best practices recommend that city charters are reviewed on a periodic basis, and the city of Decatur has not undergone a complete charter review process in a number of years,” Mayor Patti Garrett said. “I also participated as a member of the Steering Committee and elected officials’ subcommittee in the update of the ‘Model City Charter’ for the National Civic League and recognized that this is something that we should plan to do.”

Commissioner George Dusenbury has mentioned that the city commission should discuss having a directly elected mayor and gather community input. He supports the idea.

“It’s something that doesn’t happen fast, but it’s something that I believe is important and that the city will be better run. It’ll be more accountable to its residents if we have a directly elected mayor,” Dusenbury said.

Dusenbury said accountability is weaker within the city’s current structure.

“It’s about accountability, it’s about lifting the voice of the residents, and it’s about empowering the elected officials to do what they say they’re going to do,” Dusenbury said.

Part of the reason he ran for the city commission was because he wanted a park in downtown Decatur. Dusenbury wasn’t getting anywhere with it. He also created Downtown Decatur Neighbors, which advocated for a downtown master plan.

“There was a desire from voters for there to be a downtown master plan,” Dusenbury said. “There was a commitment from the commissioners for there to be a downtown master plan, and yet there was no downtown master plan. To me, that showed a lack of accountability, a lack of balance of power that, that did not happen.”

In local government, there’s a balance of power between residents, elected officials and the city staff. The structure of government would determine where that balance of power takes place.

“The elected officials are directly responsive to the residents, the folks who vote for them, and the staff is responsible to elected officials,” Dusenbury said. “Generally, the elected officials have less longevity than staff. You have a tendency for a balance of power that shifts to the staff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because you are taking politics out of it.”

But sometimes too much politics can be taken out, he added.

“In the situation with Decatur, you have a mayor who is not elected with the mandate of the people of Decatur, saying we want this person to be our mayor,” Dusenbury said. “That gives both actual political power and implied political power in terms of relationship between the mayor, the [commission] and the staff.”

The city commission has previously had similar discussions about the election of the mayor, particularly when it comes to the continuity of working with other elected officials and serving on boards like the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“I have heard from those who strongly support our current method – there is a strong incentive to work collaboratively with your fellow commissioners,” Garrett said. “I have also heard from those that concur that it is a best practice to have a directly elected mayor. Direct election of mayor should be a part of this facilitated charter review process with community input.”

The city commission still has time to determine how the new structure could work, but there has been some discussion about transitioning the at-large seat to the mayoral seat. Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers is currently representing the city’s at-large district.

“My thought was that since the at-large seat is currently voted on by both District 1 and 2, this might be the easiest way to transition if a change is to be made,” Garrett said. “Clearly, there are details and logistics that would need to be considered from both a timing standpoint and a legal one. I think what we ultimately decided at retreat is to begin looking at the process at the end of this year.”

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