DeKalb may have some bad apples; but county not rotten to its core

By Saba Long

If you’ve picked up a newspaper or turned on the TV lately, you would think DeKalb County is on the verge of bankruptcy and receivership.

But parks abound, the fire trucks arrive when a call is received and trash is picked up on a weekly basis.

DeKalb, like many of Georgia’s 159 counties, employs bad apples. But should the wool of corruption cover the county entirely? Hardly.

The metro region has a rogues’ gallery of convicted elected officials and interim CEO Lee May is fighting tooth and nail to stay off that wall. He even went so far as to hire the corruption-fighting, dynamic duo Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde to fix DeKalb.

For the discounted price of $600,000, DeKalb County taxpayers received a report, which outlined questionable spending already aired by local media. Bowers and company pointed to flower purchases and contributions to nonprofits that do important work in the county as examples of “appalling corruption.”

Lee May

Lee May taking oath of office as interim CEO of DeKalb County in 2013 (Credit: DeKalb County)

Many in public office would consider such purchases as part of constituent services. I suspect commissioners Kathie Gannon and Jeff Radar, often seen as the voices of reason in DeKalb government, thought the same.

Another example is the personal loan of an undetermined amount to May from his then-subordinate Morris Williams. While unethical, the financial favor is insufficient evidence of egregious wrongdoing.

With the exception of former DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, the year or two-long drumbeat of defrauding taxpayers is unwarranted.

Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on editorialized reports, maybe interim CEO Lee May ought to have made better use of public dollars by appropriately beefing up the county’s ethics office. Or for the amount of money paid to private truth-seekers, he could have unveiled a PR offensive to promote the positive work of DeKalb County and its citizens. I bet the top communications mavens in the region would have given him a government discount, too.

Mike Bowers

Former Attorney General Mike Bowers at a press conference earlier in 2015 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

This is a classic example where doing the right thing can get you killed. Only this time, it’s Lee May’s political career hanging in the balance.

But this isn’t all May’s fault.

If DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James bothered to put a tenth of the energy he devoted to the former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis case to investigating alleged corruption elsewhere in the county, May would never have called Bowers and company.

Instead, on the other end of the line, would be a voice devoid of financial gain, that of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Good leaders sometimes make bad decisions. As a result, consequences arise, and in government that means you vote with your feet. In this case, Lee May could very well be voted out of office and the cityhood levees may be permanently broken.

Even so, DeKalb County is not so rotten to the core.

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.

6 replies
  1. Mike says:

    This is the biggest joke article I have read in a long time. Don’t let those “pesky facts” get in your way of defending a largely corrupt power structure in Dekalb County.Report

    Reply
  2. MollyBad says:

    I thought this, too, at first. I gave May the benefit of the doubt. Then, I read the full Bowers/Hyde report. To point out flowers and charitable organizations as the only areas where tax dollars flooded is really cherry-picking the issues (the media all did that too. It made for great soundbites and I wasn’t convinced of the problem until I dug deeper). But keep in mind a few facts.

    One, the report is incomplete, thanks to May determining mid-way that enough digging was enough. What else, at what levels, might have been uncovered in the county? It appears Bowers/Hyde only skimmed the surface; is it a coincidence that they found so much trouble at the top?

    Second, it would seem common sense to most well-intentioned people that you don’t spend money that’s not yours, even on good causes. (And, why are these charitable organizations accepting donations paid for with public servants’ government-issued credit cards? Don’t they know that’s a no-no? What about it, Park Pride?) There are many ways county commissioners can help boost contributions to charities; talk them up and encourage people to support them, but don’t donate public money to them!

    Finally, as a DeKalb County resident, I just received an increase in my property tax bill, right as my trash service drops from twice a week to once a week and my water bill mysteriously continues to climb. With all the pain and suffering DeKalb is putting its people through, you would think the commissioners and May would turn inward for solutions. Instead, they looked to the citizens for more money. 

    Also interesting to me in the report was the call for someone to be in charge. Well, check this out, from the county website:
    “Zach Williams is the Executive Assistant and Chief Operating Officer for DeKalb County.  As Executive Assistant and Chief Operating Officer, Zach manages the daily operations and oversees the effectiveness and efficiency of county operations throughout DeKalb.”

    So, what’s up with Zach? What’s he doing? Anything?

    It’s all egregious, at best. Yes, to the core.Report

    Reply
  3. InfraredGuy says:

    DeKalb County started it’s slid into corruption and graft many years ago with the City of Atlanta as its benchmark. All the sugar coating will not change that and lipstick on a pig does not change the fact that it’s still a pig. DeKalb has an abundance of low information voters who either don’t know who they are voting for or don’t care so it will continue down the same pathReport

    Reply
  4. NottoDekalb says:

    As a resident of Dekalb County for 4 years, I would absolutely never consider moving back.  Immediately upon crossing over into Dekalb you see how terribly the place is managed from the pot hole ridden roads.  The schools look like absolute dumps similar to those in a rust belt city despite population growth and affluent areas.  This article is an absolute joke.  The best evidence of people being fed up with Dekalb county are the efforts to localize government.  Someone needs to clean house with Dekalb leadership and make the county a productive member of the Atlanta region.Report

    Reply

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