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DeKalb Charter Review Commission won’t recommend adding districts, county manager

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DeKalb Charter Review Commission won’t recommend adding districts, county manager

DeKalb County Government Manuel J. Maloof Center in downtown Decatur. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb Charter Review Commission had a final discussion on Oct. 12 and approved recommended amendments to the DeKalb County Organizational Act. Those amendments didn’t include the addition of commission districts or replacing the elected county CEO with a hired county manager, two ideas that had been previously discussed.

A full review of the proposed changes can be read here. But the biggest change is the subpoena power given to the county commission.

Most of the controversial amendments had been weeded out by this point in the process, as the high bar for approval required the commission to focus their efforts on a few key, controversial amendments.

To address what some see as the flawed form of executive branch currently in place,  Charter Review Commission member Robert Wittenstein filed a motion that reads as follows:

Sec. 5 (a), (b) and (c): Effective January 1, 2032, implement a County Manager form of government where the County Manager is hired by the County Commission and is responsible to the County Commission for running the day-to-day operations of the County. A County Commission Chairperson shall be elected county-wide and shall preside over the County Commission and represent the County.

The motion received seven of the 10 votes needed to pass.

The county manager form of government is a structure where the county departments report to a county manager who is hired by the county commission. This county manager role would have certain educational and experience requirements that would in theory directly pertain to running a city. In cities with a city manager form of government, the city manager is an employee in charge of running the day-to-day of the city. The current role of COO, formerly the Executive Assistant position, is most similar to a county manager. The COO reports to the CEO, who is elected by the voters.

This amendment, if approved, would have affected various parts of the charter and would require some retooling of the basic structure of county government.

The adoption date in Wittenstein’s proposal is so far in the future to allow the county to make a gradual change, both to the charter and the actual day-to-day running of business. According to Wittenstein, this was the primary motivator, as well as allowing the candidates who have begun running for CEO to serve their potential two terms before the change is made.

Charter Review Commission members in support of the amendment pointed out DeKalb as the sole county in Georgia with the CEO form of government. They said that several other metro Atlanta counties are growing at a faster rate than DeKalb, citing that as evidence of the flaws in the current CEO system.

Commission member Mary Hinkel read into the record the various discussions that have occurred on this matter in the past:

— “In 1994 and in 2000 the DeKalb County Civic Coalition [found] there was an inappropriate division of powers, they reported that the problem was systemic and were likely to persist regardless of how professional the CEO”

— “In 1999 the Supreme Court of Georgia found the CEO and the Board of Commissioners were not equals in the running of government”

— “In 2013 a special grand jury recommended the reorganization of government, the elimination of the CEO position, and a review of the org act”

Hinkel closed her statement by saying, “The county is broken and a county manager form of government is one of the ways to think about fixing it”

Commissioners against the amendment argued there wasn’t a need to make the change and dismissed DeKalb’s uniqueness in its executive branch structure as a negative, saying how other counties may switch to a CEO system at some point in the future.

Generally, though, the balance of powers was a universal area of focus for the commission, with several changes expanding the powers of the Board of Commissioners. The Charter Review Commission also discussed adding two more seats to the Board of Commissioners. The commission was largely in favor of retaining super districts, but an amendment recommended by a subcommittee of the charter review commission that would have added more seats only got six of the 10 votes needed to be adopted.

Charter Review Commission and subcommittee member Dwight Thomas was the most vocal opponent, citing how with the growth of DeKalb there had also been the creation of several cities that have their own governments. Thomas argued that adding commissioners doesn’t really improve service delivery, since a lot of those new residents are in these new cities.

State Sen. Sally Harrell spoke at the Oct. 12 meeting, advocating for more commissioners, citing the anonymity that comes with large districts. She argued that the issue of whether to add more seats to the count commission was less about service delivery and more about representation.  More commissioners will mean smaller districts and more personal politics.

Several other amendments had details ironed out, and the committee was able to pass recommendations for a revised organizational act. These recommendations were then passed to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia for final formatting. The final report from the commission will contain the draft charter with amendments, and personal reports from the commissioners containing their perspectives on the process, and amendments made and not made.

Public hearings on the draft charter are set to begin in the coming weeks, with the first one scheduled tentatively for Nov. 9 with another sometime in December. The full report is set to be finalized in early December and the Commission hopes to have its final meeting the first Thursday in December.

Once passed out of the commission, the amended charter has to be approved by the DeKalb County Commission, then the Georgia General Assembly, and then by the public in a referendum.

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