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DeKalb Charter Review Commission discusses compensation, powers and duties of county commission

DeKalb County

DeKalb Charter Review Commission discusses compensation, powers and duties of county commission

A map of DeKalb County, GA. Image obtained via Google Maps

By Jaedon Mason, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb Charter Review Commission met on Wednesday, May 17, to discuss sections eight through 10 of the Org Act, DeKalb County’s governing document. 

These sections are about, respectively, the compensation for the chief executive officer and board of commissioners, the powers and duties of the commission, and county audits. 

One of the key points stressed in the compensation discussion was the need to amend the charter to reflect serving on the board of commissioners as a full-time obligation, with proposed amendments focused on enabling this from the administrative side, adding additional powers and responsibilities to the BOC to accomplish the things asked of them. 

The first amendment proposed was to allow the board of commissioners to appoint the planning director. Specifically, this amendment was proposed to allow the county commission to more effectively fulfill its mandate under the charter. Planning and zoning are currently one of the board’s responsibilities under the charter, but the county’s planning and zoning department reports to the CEO. 

There was some debate on whether allowing the county commission to appoint the head of the department was the best way to address this discrepancy in the charter, but the charter commission ultimately came to the consensus that allowing the county commission to appoint the head of this department would give the county commission more influence in the planning and zoning decision-making process without completely changing the way the department functions or its place within the county’s organizational structure.

The charter commission also recommended adding a sort of accountability responsibility to the board of commissioners’ mandate and slightly adding to the role the county commission serves as the legislative branch, by giving them powers to hold the administration accountable to the public. There were three proposed amendments targeted at this – the county commission can put forth administrative procedures for operating county government, the county commission can make inquiries of department heads and the power to compel attendance and testimony of county officials by subpoena. 

This last amendment is included in the Georgia model County Charter and is in place in several counties with a similar Executive/Legislative distinction, like DeKalb.

The first two amendments formalize things the county commission could already do, including them can be seen as putting language in the charter to formally redefine the role of the county commission to serve an additional function as a body to hold the county administration accountable. The last is to give this redefinition an ability to be enforced, to give inquiries made by the county commission some administrative heft.

It’s worth noting the mandate of the Charter Review Commission. They are tasked with, on some level, defining the role of government, or at least updating it to address not just the real problems that have arisen, but the way the county has evolved. Essentially, the review commission is charged with recommending amendments to the county’s “constitution” to be aligned with how people use the government, with how it works. 

Citizens have consistently gone to the county commissioners asking them to hold the administration accountable, and the proposed changes are an attempt to formally make this a part of the job of a county commissioner.

The Charter Review Commission stressed that this change shouldn’t change the basic ideal flow of demands in the county hierarchy. Charter Review Commission Member Claudette Leek even proposed adding an amendment that clarified that it’s outside the county commission’s jurisdiction to direct or instruct department heads. This amendment would go along with the expansion of powers, and explain they were only to be used for transparency and accountability, rather than to enact specific policies. 

“Basically what we are talking about here is oversight,” Leek said.

The powers and duties of the board of commissioners are central in the discussion. There aren’t too many fundamental changes that could be made to the way these top-level county officials are compensated without conflicting with state law, which currently states that the General Assembly and the board of commissioners can set salaries. There was some discussion about barring CEO’s or commissioners from having outside employment, but this was pretty unpopular within the charter commission.  

The charter commission wrapped up with a brief overview of Section 10, which covers county audits, a section that needed some housekeeping changes, like making Section 10a, internal audits, Section 11 due to its importance. 

Increasing transparency and accountability have been general themes throughout the process, both of which were front and center in last Wednesday’s discussion. The current Section 11, on the presiding officer, was on the agenda to be discussed but ultimately was pushed to the next meeting. This is one of the more controversial statutes of the current charter, with many citizens advocating for a move away from the CEO model.

A comment was made disapproving revisions to the charter when the presiding officer format isn’t firmly nailed down, but Charter Review Commission Chair Steve Henson explained, “Any change has to be receive at least 10 votes [from the commission] before being recommended and right now there are five or six people who are in favor of the CEO form of government, so currently there’s not really a path to recommend any changes”.

Discussion of the presiding officer in Section 11 is set to be a pivotal moment for the Charter Review Commission, but until then, the commission seems to be favoring any changes that bring increased accountability and transparency to DeKalb County government. 

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