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Proposed DeKalb charter changes would give commissioners subpoena power

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Proposed DeKalb charter changes would give commissioners subpoena power

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

DeKalb County, GA – Proposed changes to DeKalb County’s charter would give county commissioners subpoena power.

That is one of several revisions to the county’s governing document currently being considered by the county’s Charter Review Commission. 

Charter Review Commission Steve Henson presented a first read of the revised Organizational act in the commission’s meeting on Thursday, Oct. 5. The draft that was presented can be read here

The most notable changes to DeKalb County’s current charter are an increase in the county government’s power and responsibility to fill vacant offices at all levels and giving the board of commissioners (BOC) the power to subpoena county officials.

Essentially, the benefit of adding the subpoena power to the county commission, is that it will allow them to more adequately fit the role the citizens seek them out to fulfill. County commissioners spoke about how county residents consistently ask them for updates on the progress of things like infrastructure projects that are actually being carried out by whatever associated department under the executive branch. Subpoena power, in theory, allows the board of commissioners to more consistently find the answers to these citizen questions, by giving them a tool to ensure they can still get answers, without interfering in the county’s formal chain of command. County employees report to the county CEO, under the county’s current form of government.

Critics would say there are still risks of this tool being used to influence policy in a way that doesn’t fit the ideal separation of powers, but this amendment was generally uncontroversial and is actually enumerated as a policy in the Georgia Model Charter.  

These proposed amendments are in line with a general theme of changes targeted at setting requirements for transparency and accountability in the county government across the board. There are several sections in the new charter where administrative deadlines and contingency plans were added to aid in processes where issues have arisen in the past. In the presented draft, posting final reports to the county website is now required for things like the budget and the internal audit.

The draft charter presented was a “Red Line Copy”, with its purpose being to gauge how close the council is to the consensus necessary to approve the updated charter. Henson, the chair of the commission, hopes that the public can consider the most controversial changes ahead of the commission’s next meeting on Oct. 12.

At this Oct. 12 meeting, the charter commission will hold a final discussion and vote on amendments to the charter. Any amendment needs 10 votes from the 15 member commission to pass.  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. 

Commission member Robert Wittenstein said that, despite not having the 10 votes needed to approve it, he plans to make a motion to recommend changing the form of county government away from a CEO system to a county manager system, with the chief administrator being hired by the county commission. 

“I just want to set expectations…I won’t belabor it, I won’t take up more time than necessary, but we ought to have an up and down vote,” he said. “If only out of respect for people who have asked us at every meeting to consider changing it. Even if it fails, it’s important for us to at least go on record.”

Proponents would say that allowing the board of commissioners to appoint the person in charge of the day-to-day draws the two entities into conflict less, allows for the BOC to set qualifications for and dismiss the chief administrator if they are derelict. Thus making the county manager system a more unified, professionally managed and accountable government. 

Critics would say that the current CEO system with its strong executive enables the kind of fast-paced decision-making needed for growth. 

There is also set to be a final discussion and a vote on whether to add seats to the board of commissioners, one of which may be a permanent countywide presiding officer role, as was discussed by the subcommittee on Sept. 26

Henson closed the meeting out encouraging members of the commission to review the document so that something can be passed next week.

Henson said, “Our job here is to move the ball and get a first down…It won’t be the end of the process, it will really be the beginning…but even if we can’t get to ten votes I would say our work has been beneficial” 

Henson continued, “We all understand the charter much better, everyone who has been involved in this process. There is also a record of our work, our minutes, the public input we received, all of which will be valuable for people to look at in the future.”  

The most significant proposed amendments and their location in the charter listed below. Omitted are several minor amendments that bring the Org Act into alignment with state law. The full draft with all proposed changes can be found on the DeKalb County Charter Review Commission website, under the “Commission Report” tab or access the PDF directly here.

Here’s a summary of the proposed changes:

Vacancies – Section 5

— Amendments to this section mainly involve making explicit policy around suspensions, or what is termed “temporary vacancies” in the document. 

— The changes empower the Board of Commissioners [BOC] to fill the vacancies in the upper level of government, specifically designating the presiding officer of the BOC to execute the role of CEO in the case of suspension and requiring vacancies on the BOC itself to be filled via BOC appointment in 30 days, before being appointed by the Chief Judge of the Superior court. 

Powers and duties of the commission – Section 9 

— Amendments to this section crystallize the legislative role of the branch, formally empowering them to create citizen engagement programs and expanding their oversight function by giving the commissioners the power of subpoena in an attempt to make this oversight function more actionable.  

— With these changes, The BOC would have the mandate to “make inquiries and investigations into the affairs of the county” and the power to “subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony and require the production of evidence” in service of this mandate. 

Internal Audits –  Section formerly 10a, now 11 

— This section was brought out of the previous “Audits Section – 10” to highlight its importance. The new language adds deadlines and mandates that final reports be added to the county website within 30 days of issuance

Appointing positions – Section formerly 13A, now 15 

— This section along with “Vacancies – Section 5” makes up the amendments working to empower county government to not leave county posts empty, as has been a consistent complaint with the status quo the commission has heard from citizens and public officials throughout this process. 

— Specific changes include the addition of a contingency plan, allowing CEO nominations to posts to be automatically confirmed if BOC members do not confirm or reject the nomination within 20 days for the first nomination and 15 days for the second. 

— If the CEO fails to nominate someone for a vacant post within 30 days, the BOC then has 30 days to elect someone

Executive assistant – Section formerly 14, now 16

— All references to the executive assistant position have been changed to the Chief Operating Officer, the role’s function is unchanged, serving as the Chief Administrator, in charge of the day-to-day running of the county. 

Enactment of ordinances and resolutions; Veto power of the chief executive – Section 9

— Added an amendment saying that if the CEO doesn’t approve or veto a resolution eight days after its adoption, it becomes effective without their approval. 

Budgeting; control of expenditures – Section formerly 17, now 19

— The date the budget is to be presented to the BOC is moved up from Dec. 15 to Oct. 1, 

— The whole process is thus shifted up and this is due, according to the commission, to the fact that there is a significant lag in approval of the budget and the county are frequently into the next budget year before it is actually approved. 

Added an Open records Officer – Section 27 

— This section creates an office whose responsibility it is to ensure compliance with open records requests 

Added Organizational Act Review Commissions – Section 28

— This section says that an Organizational Act Review Commission should meet every eight years. 

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