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DeKalb Charter Review Commission subcommittee recommends adding commission districts

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DeKalb Charter Review Commission subcommittee recommends adding commission districts

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

DeKalb County, GA — A DeKalb Charter Review Commission subcommittee recommends adding two more seats to the Board of Commissioners while maintaining the current super district seats.

If approved, that would bring the total number of county commissioners to nine.

The committee approved the recommendation on Tuesday.  The Sept. 26 meeting of the Sub-Committee for Review and Discussion of Commission Districts was the fourth meeting of the subcommittee that was tasked with discussing potential amendments to the current seven-member county commission.

Currently, the commission has five regular districts and two super districts, representing roughly half the county.

The subcommittee evaluated three main potential changes to the status quo: adding more seats to the commission, keeping or removing super districts, and adding the role of a chairperson of the board that is elected countywide.

During the Sept. 26 meeting, the subcommittee voted to recommend the first two of these three proposals to the Charter Review Commission for consideration, voting to table the third.

Several members of the subcommittee were in favor of increasing the size of the commission by two seats based on the increase in population of DeKalb over the past few years. Dwight Thomas, a Charter Review Commission member, expressed his opposition, expounding on the dangers of increasing the size of government without evidence that increased size would address the issues at hand.

The vote on whether to recommend increasing the number of district commissioners was tied, broken by the committee Chair Virginia Harris, who voted in favor of adding two more seats to the commission.

Super districts were the least controversial. With little discussion, the subcommittee voted to recommend keeping the super districts unanimously. Commission member Robert Wittenstein was initially the main proponent of getting rid of super districts, but changed his mind in response to public sentiment.

“I had originally floated the idea of getting rid of the super districts because I thought it was a vestige of a period white supremicisim,” said Wittestien.

He detailed how the super districts were created in the 1950s to keep the county commission majority white, but acknowledged that this is no longer the case and that people were staunchly in favor of the double representation the super districts provide.

Creating a county-wide chairperson of the board position was the final, particularly fraught matter of discussion during Tuesday’s meeting.

Concerns were voiced about whether adding another county-wide position would naturally draw whoever was in this position into conflict with the CEO, as well as financial concerns about the expense of adding a new office to the county budget.

There were also concerns that the expense of running for county-wide office poses a significant barrier to entry for a broad swath of the population. The argument was that having such barriers to entry doesn’t fit the purpose of what is supposed to be the most representative, “people’s branch.”

Members of the subcommittee in favor said that having this chair position would provide the leadership that would facilitate the board serving more as a unit. They also supported the idea that having more than one individual representing the county as a whole might lead to more perspectives being shared more consistently on county-wide issues, positing that any conflict that may arise as a result of that would be in service to the interests of the voters.

John Turner, another Charter Review Commission member, spoke in favor of creating a new chair position. Turner said that assigning the leadership responsibilities to a rotating member of the Board of Commissioners would, for a period of time, distract whoever held these leadership responsibilities from representing the citizens of their district and dilute the overall authority of the chair.

This proposal was tabled as it was unclear whether there would be consensus on this matter in the Charter Commission as a whole, as well as wanting to see the final amount of new seats added before deciding on how the role should be structured.

From here, these recommendations will be discussed and voted on by the Charter Review Commission at large, with any recommended amendments to the charter needing 10 out of 16 votes to be ratified. It would then have to be approved by the DeKalb County Commission, then the Georgia General Assembly, and then, finally, by voters in a public referendum.

The goal of the subcommittee is to work through and debate specific details, so they can create recommendations are likely to pass, ensuring consensus ahead of time rather than at every step along the way.

It may seem as though there is still a way to go, but the commission is in its final stages. Charter Review Commission Chair Steve Henson will present a proposed consensus charter at the next meeting on Oct. 5 and the commission hopes to have a finalized version of the charter with their recommended amendments ready for the public to view by December.

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