Citizen involvement key to DeKalb County government reform

By Guest Columnist ALLEN MOYE, a lifelong resident of DeKalb County who recently retired as a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Fulton County District Attorney’s office

The Georgia General Assembly has gone home. We have no new cities for DeKalb County, but we continue to face nettlesome questions about governing ourselves. No matter how many cities we divide ourselves into, we cannot secede from DeKalb County.

Instead of ignoring its problems, we must make sure that it is operated efficiently and honestly.

My own view is that despite recent problems, DeKalb County government has for the most part served us well over the past 30 years. In 1998, DeKalb was named an “All American County.”

I am probably biased. For almost 10 years, from the mid-1970s to the mid-‘80s, I was involved in that era’s reorganization effort. In 1979, I chaired the charter commission known as the DeKalb County Government Reorganization Commission.

Allen Moye

Allen Moye

Citizen involvement was essential at that time. Despite the opposition of elected county leaders, citizens took control and designed a government that separated the executive and legislative functions, in part to stop the Commissioners from meddling in the day-to-day operations of the county departments.

In 1982, citizens decisively rejected the old commission-county manager system, and replaced it with the current system.

Despite that history, some commissioners have suggested the return to a commission-county manager form as the tonic for current problems. They claim the current form of government fosters a “culture of corruption,” which boiled to the surface with the indictment of the CEO.

What we must realize is that good government requires both a good form of government and honest and dedicated people to lead and manage that government. In reality, our government works in counties across the country, and in cities in Georgia.

There is little contemporary evidence that returning to the commission-county manager government would eliminate corruption. Just ask voters in Gwinnett or Fulton, where that form of government exists.

In Gwinnett, one former commissioner is in federal prison; another is under indictment, and a former chair resigned rather than face indictment. In Fulton, the county manager hid information about improper actions of sitting commissioners, for whom he works, until after they were re-elected in 2012.

Only if a new city completely eliminates the need for county government is the creation of that city a solution for problems in the county.

As a resident of Decatur, I can attest to the benefits of living in a city, but neither my city government nor my city taxes has eliminated reliance on DeKalb County for some services.

County services are essential for every city, existing or proposed. Even if a city government can offer police services at a lower cost, DeKalb County still provides the jail and the court system.

No city, existing or proposed, intends to replace the County’s water and sewer services, despite steadily climbing water and sewer rates amid allegations of mismanagement and possible corruption. Even if we create cities which cover all of DeKalb County, the problems of the County must be solved.

We now have a chance to step away from rhetoric filled with vitriol and hyperbole, to carefully and deliberately consider causes and solutions for problems in county government. There is time to ask hard questions of elected officials and ourselves, rather than settling for short-sighted solutions, which only plant seeds of tomorrow’s problems.

Are the problems caused by the form of government, or by the people running that government? Will changing internal policies or procedures improve the delivery of county services? What impact will new cities have on current and future needs and responsibilities of county government? Would the reduction in the size of commission districts increase our sense of connection to the county? How willing are we to pay for additional government services, and, for that matter, for additional governments?

The future of our county merits and demands thoughtful consideration of these and other issues, and we as citizens must claim a role in this process.

Wisely, Interim CEO Lee May and Commissioner Kathy Gannon have begun that conversation, and I strongly urge them to continue and expand it. Especially if the push for new cities continues, we need to develop and implement a careful plan for a diminished but still critical county government.

We cannot and should not delegate that to elected leaders alone.

This process will take time and be difficult, but the choice we face is to define our own future or leave it to others to do it for us. I for one don’t want to wake up following some future General Assembly or referendum and find that we face even more problems than we have today.

9 replies
  1. atlman says:

    Citizen involvement is not what is needed. How much citizen involvement is there in Forsyth? What is needed is for DeKalb to elect competent, qualified representation. Let me go ahead and say it: for decades, the black community has chosen the same sort of leadership for political positions as lead civil rights groups. The black leadership promotes this because A) it provides them easy access to political jobs … it is extremely easy to go from being a local NAACP or SCLC chapter leader to the school board or city council for instance and more important B) it keeps the black leadership “hard left”; meaning ideologically pure, and keeps out people with different backgrounds that may be more pragmatic or moderate. One of the complaints, for example, of the DeKalb school board members appointed by Deal was their corporate background rather than their being civil rights or community activists. That is a frequent complaint of blacks appointed by Republicans or moderate Democrats, including going back to Bill Clinton’s choosing blacks from corporate America rather than from the civil rights and other activist community for his cabinet and other positions.
    The problem is that politics and activism require two different skill sets. It is completely different to demand that banks hire more blacks as a member of Rainbow/PUSH and running the bank itself and being tasked with keeping the bank in business and providing an acceptable return to the bank’s stockholders, for example. You can still be an activist if you are in the legislative or judicial branches, or if you are a legislator in a large body like Congress. But if you are in the executive branch i.e. mayor or city council, or even if you are on a legislative branch body that is very small like a city council or school board, you are going to have to put aside the activist stuff and go ahead and govern: to deal with real administrative, budgeting, hiring etc. issues. Andrew Young did when he went from being civil rights activist to very effective mayor. But the problem is that the experience moderated Young’s politics. He went from being an activist radical to sitting on corporate boards (including Wal-Mart!) and advocating charter schools and vouchers. That is exactly what the black leadership wishes to avoid. 
    But the black voters have to reject what the black leadership wants and elect the best people for the DeKalb Commission, school board, CEO, etc. And no, I am not (only) talking about electing nonblacks. There are plenty of qualified blacks with managerial and leadership backgrounds in corporate America, the military, etc. and DeKalb is teeming with such people. Again, note that Nathan Deal was able to find such people for the school board with little effort, and regrettably they are being held back by another civil rights industry type in Michael Thurmond as acting superintendent for life (and the DeKalb politicos installed him in that role right before the previous school board was cleaned out precisely to do so). It is just that it is very difficult to get past the black leadership gatekeepers who prefer ideology to competence. Voters in DeKalb, Clayton and elsewhere need to do that job for them.Report

    Reply
  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    Let me go on and say a bit more. As long as blacks in DeKalb continue to elect political leadership as they have, the farther DeKalb will sink into the financial and ethical abyss. What has happened in Detroit and Wayne County will happen in DeKalb unless our electorate wakes up.
    We hear a lot about Detroit in the news, but less about Wayne County. The population in 1960 was 1.67 million in Detroit and 2.67 million in Wayne County, so 1.67 million lived in Detroit and 1 million outside Detroit. The population in 2010 was 0.71 million in Detroit and 1.82 million in Wayne County, so 0.71 million lived in Detroit and 1.1 million outside Detroit. Detroit’s population dropped 57.5% while the population outside Detroit increased 10% over a 50 year period. The Wayne County finances are also in a shambles, and the state is pressuring them to cut the budget to eliminate a $175 million accumulated deficit.Report

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  3. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch
    The Detroit to Atlanta comparison is dumb. One city is broke, the other is running an annual surplus of tens of millions of dollars. One city has been led by Marxists for decades, the other city’s most liberal mayor ever (Andrew Young) supports charter schools and sits on the board of directors of a lot of corporations, including the much-despised by progressives Wal-Mart, and currently has high ranking figures from Bain and Company and other private industry types in its administration (unthinkable in most major cities). One city is wracked with crime, the other city has its lowest crime rates in 40 years and expanded the police force even during a recession when revenue was tight. One city was driven bankrupt by its pension obligations, the other reformed its pensions decades before it became a problem. One city can’t even bribe businesses to relocate or invest there, the other is booming and gentrifying with education, tech, healthcare, construction, entertainment/media transit and logistics jobs and investment. One has three major research universities (Georgia Tech, Emory and Georgia State to provide leadership, investment and attract high income workers) the other doesn’t have a single one. For example, AT&T and Coca-Cola have relocated a lot of jobs downtown (with NCR strongly considering it) because of Georgia Tech, and Georgia State has spent the last decade redeveloping a lot of blighted, depressed areas downtown, and is on the verge of adding the Turner Field area to their plate. And lots of the better ideas for Atlanta – including the Beltline which is driving a ton of private development and gentrification – came from Georgia Tech and the rest of the university community. Detroit didn’t have that, and their leaders like Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick would have been too racist and liberal to listen to them even if they did.
    And yes, while one has been declining in population ever since the 1960s riots (the sort that Atlanta never had and will never have) the other has experienced slow population growth/gentrification for the last 10 years, growth that will accelerate as the economy improves and the many infrastructure/housing projects that are now in progress or being planned complete from 2017-2020. Right now, the worry is not the lack of investment in Atlanta, but concerns over whether there is too much speculation and overbuilding. Add it all up and comparisons of Atlanta being the next Detroit is nothing but wishful thinking. Even Clayton County, with all of its problems, is not Detroit-bad, and Clayton County lacks assets that Atlanta and DeKalb do.Report

    Reply
  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman The City of Atlanta surplus is a myth created by politicians to encourage their supporters. The City cannot afford to address more than 1/3 of its accumulated $1.1 billion backlog of decayed infrastructure that must be replaced or mended. The City’s pension funds are underfunded by over $1 billion.
    The City of Atlanta is on the same path as the City of Detroit, not just as far down the path. Hopefully, reason will prevail and the City of Atlanta will correct its financial sins.Report

    Reply
  5. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch  
    1. It is a myth? Prove it.
    2. A construction backlog is not the same as a liability owed to creditors. Atlanta could never perform those construction projects and it would face no financial consequences. You are pretending as if needing/wanting to replace your aging car is the same as having to repay a car loan on a luxury car while not having a job or prospects of getting one.

    3. The city’s pension funds are underfunded by $1 billion? Prove it.
    4. Atlanta is on the same path as a city that is losing population and cannot attract industry? In what way? Those are the dreams that people like you have had ever since Atlanta’s politicians became majority black 40 years ago. Well keep waiting, and maybe in another 40 years it will come true. Or not. The reason is that Atlanta will be majority non-black within the next 10 years, as fewer blacks are moving into the city (they are actually going to the suburbs or bypassing Atlanta altogether for other states like Florida, North Carolina and Texas … the “Hotlanta” thing is dead, was killed off by the great recession and the collapse of Atlanta’s urban music industry … the film industry remains but it has gone from being a mostly minority endeavor to being a majority/big business scene) but more whites and Asians are. 
    Of course, when the population is no longer majority black thanks to the high income jobs and residents that the city is drawing thanks to the Beltline, street car, etc. and improved public safety thanks to the increase in the police force as well as the new emphasis on charter schools, and the mostly nonblack population elects nonblack leadership, people like you will give the new leadership the credit for what was initiated by Reed and (though to a lesser extent) Franklin.Report

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  6. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman
    The City’s financial woes have been well publicized in the local media, so don’t play coy. Just a couple of weeks ago the Mayor was saying perhaps he could scrape together enough money to finance a $250-$300 million bond issue to make a start on the $1+ billion infrastructure replacement backlog. No mention though about how to pay for the rest of it. Plus the coupon rate mentioned was 5% which puts it in municipal junk bond status.
    Regarding the penion funds being underfunded, see http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Retirement_security/Pew_city_pensions_report.pdf.Report

    Reply
  7. GeorgeChidi says:

    Burroughston Broch has been haunting message boards with this nonsense for years. It continually amazes me how fellows like Burroughston can talk glibly about white flight — and the capital flight associated with it — with one breath while decrying the problems of urban America with the next. At no point does he ever make the logical inference that, perhaps, white people taking capital away from cities actually causes the problems that he then says white people are running away from. 
    Plainly, it’s all black people’s fault. We elect “bad leaders.” Not “leaders put into untenable positions by a loss of talent and wealth.”
    I’m not looking to give a free pass to corruption and bad governance. It’s a problem here. But it’s plainly indifferent to party and race. And it is not the cause of white flight. That’s a combination of old-fashioned racism and the market forces associated with a shifting center of wealth.Report

    Reply
  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    GeorgeChidi 

    “white people taking capital away from cities actually
    causes the problems that he then says white people are running away from.”
    No DeKalb citizen is under any obligation
    to remain in DeKalb just so his capital is available to be taxed by DeKalb
    County.
    “leaders put into untenable positions by a loss of talent and
    wealth.”
    If a leader is in
    an untenable position, the honorable path is to resign and let someone else
    lead. Being a leader in an untenable position is not a carte blanche to justify
    corrupt activities.
    “I’m not looking to give a free pass to corruption and bad governance.”
    That is exactly what
    you’re trying to do in your statement above.Report

    Reply
  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    GeorgeChidi “But it’s plainly indifferent to party and race. And it is not the cause of white flight. That’s a combination of old-fashioned racism and the market forces associated with a shifting center of wealth.”
    Nothing is indifferent to race. The white flight in Detroit began after the 1967 riots and was exacerbated by Mayor Coleman Young’s 20 year campaign of political retribution. A similar program began in DeKalb under Vernon Jones as he vowed to “put a darker face on DeKalb County”, and continued under Burrell Ellis. $ millions have been paid in fines, settlements, and legal fees, with more to come. That is part of the reason why, between the 2000 and 2010 US Censuses, DeKalb’s population grew by 26,000 while the white population dropped by 8,000.
    And regarding the market forces associated with a shifting center of wealth, are you saying that white flight is causing the center of wealth to shift, or the center of wealth is shifting, causing white flight?Report

    Reply

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