DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis used a business chamber meeting this month to combat the County Commission’s efforts to eventually eliminate his position and hire a county manager instead.
While speaking before the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 7, Ellis said the county benefits from having an elected CEO directly answerable to voters. He also said counties with elected executives are among the best nationwide, and that White House and federal officials give special consideration to DeKalb County because its CEO is elected, among other qualities.
Ellis’ speech was a direct response to recent news reports that claim a majority of the County Commission favors removing the CEO position and hiring a county manager who would take direct orders from the commission. Commissioners have talked about the issue sporadically in the past, though the effort to make a change has ramped up over the last month.
Commissioners have routinely complained that Ellis’ department does not provide requested information in a timely manner. A recent retreat revealed stark divisions after several commissioners said they’ve wanted early departmental budget proposals so they can prepare for the upcoming budget season. So far, they haven’t received them.
But this governance change effort was not started by voters, Ellis said, and represents only frustrated commission members.
“Let’s make sure that we’re addressing your priorities and not someone else’s,” he told chamber members inside the Ravinia Club in Dunwoody. “This is no time to play politics by drumming up make-believe issues.”
Several commissioners were in attendance, however, and Commissioner Lee May asked Ellis directly if he would be open to a referendum that would change the county to a commission-manager form of government.
“I don’t know. I don’t think this issue is being driven by you,” he repeated to chamber members. “But if I’m wrong, you’ll let me know.”
Ellis said he had recently returned from a White House-sponsored jobs summit where he said he was the only county executive invited from across the nation. Metropolitan counties are some of the nation’s largest economic drivers, and federal officials are interested in the DeKalb County perspective because it’s a wealthy, metro county – and because its top executive is elected, Ellis said.
“The White House knows who you are,” he said of the CEO’s position. “I don’t say that for my own ego. [White House officials] wanted DeKalb County.”
The commission on Dec. 8 tabled a resolution supporting a referendum that would change the county to a commission-manager form of government. In supporting documents, the commission listed a number of reasons why it supports the change.
“DeKalb County could realize significant cost savings by transitioning to the Commission-Manager form of government,” the documents states. “A professional county manager appointed and directed by the County Commission would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the executive functions of DeKalb County government while reducing political infighting and improving responsiveness to the Commission.”
The county’s previous CEO, Vernon Jones, also weighed in the issue in a written statement.
“Before further changes are made to DeKalb’s form of government, I would hope that public input is sought and that any future changes would have a positive impact on the citizens of DeKalb County,” he said.
The commission also added that 115 of 159 Georgia counties function under a commission-manager form of government.
County officials said the commission would consider the referendum again at its next meeting.