Of the three candidates running for DeKalb County chief executive officer, Jerome Edmondson was alone onstage during a July 12 question-and-answer forum.
CEO candidate Gregory Adams, who is the pastor of True Church of God in Christ in Austell, was at the forum for a while but had to leave early to preach at his church.
Incumbent CEO Burrell Ellis had a prior engagement. He was participating in a special town hall meeting sponsored by several fraternities and sororities.
Responding to a question from Bill Crane, forum moderator and columnist for The Champion, about uniting north and south DeKalb residents, Edmondson said the divide between the two parts of the county is “not a perception; it’s real.”
“One of the greatest rewards I’ve had on this journey is I’ve witnessed north and south DeKalb,” said Edmondson during the forum, which featured CEO and Board of Commissioners’ candidates. “There’s a real disconnect between the haves and the have nots and the perception of who gets the budget. It’s a very, very unhealthy relationship for a supposed-to-be ‘one’ DeKalb.”
If elected, Edmondson said, he would use the CEO position to improve relations in the county.
“I’m going to have my north DeKalb meetings in south DeKalb and my south DeKalb meetings in north DeKalb, and we’re going to learn some best practices from each other and learn how to get along,” Edmondson said.
When asked about budget priorities, Edmondson said, “I think of the three top priorities that we have to deliver, No. 1 is jobs. I think the second is jobs. And No. 3 absolutely has to be jobs.
“We’re not even talking about global business development,” Edmondson said. “Some of us are spending more time talking about issues and minute problems.”
Candidates for Board of Commissioners’ District 4 seat were asked what areas of the county’s budget could still stand more cuts.
Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who is seeking re-eletion, said, “That’s a very difficult question to answer simply because you have to look at the projects that are going on in those departments.
“You can’t just do a blanket analysis like that,” Sutton said. “You have to evaluate it before every budget term and keep evaluating as you go along through the year. You have to continuously evaluate the department, the situation for efficiencies and make the appropriate decision at that time.”
District 4 Candidate Steve Bradshaw said, “It’s very hard to say in a forum like this what specifically I would cut.
“First of all that’s fraught with peril and it’s fraught with a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” said Bradshaw, a businessman and adjunct professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.
“Budgeting should be based on conservative forecasts,” Bradshaw said. “Why not start off with a conservative budget and maybe at midyear we might have a pleasant surprise or at least break even?”
When whittling down a budget, it is important to examine each line item, said District 4 candidate Clyburn Halley, chief of the Grantville Police Department.
“I think the first thing you would have to do is get the department heads together,” Halley said. “Second, we need to cross-train our people. If we have to lay people off, we might have to cross-train. You can’t just look at one department as a whole. You have to look at every department and see where we’re wasting money. You have to do more with less today.”
Crane asked District 5 candidates how they would address friction between commissioners and the CEO.
Commissioner Lee May said the county’s current form of government breeds that friction.
“I’m fine with the differences,” May said. “But our differences, when they bring gridlock, hurt all of DeKalb County, even if I am right in my position or believe that I am right in my position.
“Without changing the form of government, what really needs to occur is more intentional dialogue between the Board of Commissioners, the leadership and the CEO,” said May, adding that he has asked for weekly meetings with Ellis.
“Hopefully, if I’m re-elected, and if [Ellis] is re-elected, we have to figure out how to conduct business for the next four years,” May said.
Gina Mangham, an attorney running for May’s seat, said, “Unfortunately if they haven’t figured it out in the last four years, I’m not real confident that it’s going to happen in the next four.
“The form of government may breed differences, but the reality is you have to come to some consensus,” Mangham said. “We’ve had too many stalemates that have hurt the county overall.
“We have to compromise,” said Mangham. “It’s just not acceptable to say that we need another form of government. At the end of the day, there has to be a real effort to come to some compromise and put the needs of the citizens before the personal needs of each commissioner.”
District 5 Andre White, publisher of The Sentinel, said operations of the county government “has come down to a crisis of personalities.”
“Regardless of the form of government, it comes down to maturity,” White said. “The seat does not belong to you. The seat belongs to the people.”
“We have to stop playing politics with the lives of people and be mature about our approach to some of the issues here,” White said.
White said he wishes elected officials “could take the job and not exact the check.”
“More than half the people in here would not be in here,” he said of those running for office.
District 5 candidate Kenneth Samuel said he is committed to building a coalition in DeKalb.
“Compromise is not a bad word,” said Samuel, pastor of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain. “It does require maturity of judgment. It requires a commitment to a common good that is more important than individual ideologies.
“It should not take four years for adults who are concerned about the community to communicate without airing dirty laundry, without obstructing the progress of the community, without jeopardizing the bond rating of the county, without creating an impasse whereby we question the credit worthiness of DeKalb County and make it an undesirable risk for businesses…and for the people that make this community great,” Samuel said.
On the subject of the upcoming transportation referendum in which voters will decide whether to enact a one penny sales tax to fund regional transportation projects, Super District 6 Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who is seeking reelction, said she will support the tax.
“I am a supporter of transit,” Gannon said. “I know a lot of folks are upset because we spent 39 years paying a penny.
“We have built MARTA,” Gannon said. “Do we want MARTA to go under? We do not want that investment to be a waste.”
Gannon said DeKalb County will get “almost a 2-to-1 return” on its investment in regional transportation.
“That means jobs,” Gannon said. “It will also begin the transit route to Stonecrest [Mall].”
Gannon’s opponent, Edmond Richardson, said he is “absolutely” not in favor of the transportation tax.
“It is unfair,” said Richardson, chief of staff for May. “DeKalb County has paid a penny for 30 years and to ask us to pay another penny, and not receive something that we deserve…it’s not fair.
“If we are serious about relieving traffic congestion, I-20 would be one of the top priorities on the list,” Richardson said.
Richardson said the state Legislature should reconsider the transportation plan by making it fair to DeKalb, Fulton and Atlanta residences who have been paying a penny-tax for regional transportation for more than 30 years.
“Some people say, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,’” Richardson said. “We don’t need to sell our car for gas.”