The DeKalb County CEO’s office isn’t going anywhere – at least for now.
The board of commissioners voted 4-3 on Dec. 15 against a resolution supporting a referendum asking voters if they wanted to remove the county’s elected CEO position and allow the commission to hire a county manager instead. Had the resolution passed, local legislators could have pushed legislation for a referendum through the General Assembly.
“I just don’t think this is the right time,” Commissioner Connie Stokes said.
Stokes and commissioners Jeff Rader, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Kathie Gannon voted to withdraw the resolution. Stokes said the commission needs to focus on the severe budget deficit the county faces next year rather than organizational changes. Others said they didn’t think cutting the CEO’s office was the best way to address their issues.
The dissolution of the CEO’s office had been discussed among commissioners sporadically in the past. But the effort to make a change intensified last month after commissioners said they were frustrated when they didn’t receive preliminary departmental budget proposals they wanted to prepare for the upcoming, difficult budget season.
Commissioners also said they were routinely blocked from communicating directly with county staff and had trouble making sure their policies were followed and enforced.
“The administrative structure of the county needs to be improved,” Rader said.
Commissioners Lee May and Elaine Boyer were the resolution’s most vocal supporters. Both said they had no issues with Ellis personally and politically and believed counties run by a commission and a county manager were most efficient. If voters decided to ax the CEO’s office after Ellis’ term expire in 2012, the county would immediately save about $3 million yearly, May said in a Dec. 11 interview with The Champion.
At the time, May said he was working to secure a super-majority of the commission to vote for the proposal. It didn’t happen.
“Well, we move on to next year,” he said after the vote.
The resolution proposal was killed after Boyer sought to defer the issue until the commissioner’s first March meeting.
“This is not a direct assault on CEO Burrell Ellis,” she said. “This is not about the man. This is about the seat.”
Ellis defended the CEO position at a Dec. 7 county chamber of commerce meeting. He said commissioners hoping to dissolve the CEO’s office were working in their own interests, not the public’s. He also said federal and White House officials often include DeKalb County in discussions about issues that might affect county governments because, among other things, the CEO is elected.
May confronted Ellis at the meeting and asked him whether he would be willing to put the question before voters in a referendum. Ellis said he wasn’t sure and reiterated that he didn’t think the public was behind the change.
At the Dec. 15 meeting, Gannon was the only commissioner to say she outright disagrees with the change.
“We have not given it an opportunity to work,” she said.
The CEO’s office was created in 1985, and commissioners last year were able to get legislation passed allowing them to run their own meetings.
Regardless, changes to the CEO’s powers might still be on the horizon. Sutton proposed – and deferred – a separate resolution that encourages the General Assembly to investigate the delineation of powers between the CEO and the board of commissioners.
“DeKalb County’s current delineation of powers between the chief executive officer and the board of commissioners restricts the commission’s ability to receive the cooperation and information from the executive branch necessary for the commission to make responsible policy and budgetary decisions,” a resolution document states.