Succeeding Vernon Jones as DeKalb County CEO should've been the easiest job in Georgia. During his two scandal-ridden terms as the county's top executive, Jones cultivated a reputation for being an immature egotist given to bullying tirades and other bad behavior. When Burrell Ellis was elected as CEO in 2008, the former DeKalb commissioner's cardinal duty was simple: Don't be Vernon Jones. A bespectacled, mild-mannered Ivy League graduate, Ellis seemed perfectly suited to thrive in the role of his predecessor's antithesis.
As it turns out, Ellis' dissimilarity to Jones hasn't been enough to carry him since DeKalb's boom times have drawn to an unceremonious close. When the county — like most other municipal and state governments — was thrust headlong into the recession and property values flagged, so did tax revenues. In DeKalb, Ellis says county revenue fell roughly $100 million dollars in just a couple of years. He proposed a tax hike to make up for the resulting budget shortfall in 2010, but commissioners responded with a resounding "Hell, no." Instead, they opted for, among other "solutions," turning paid holidays for police and firefighters into unpaid furlough days. The Commission also balked at Ellis' proposal to utilize federal stimulus funds to partner with a Florida firm in redeveloping the empty GM plant in Doraville. In both cases, Ellis has been perceived as partly to blame.
Now, not yet two years into his first term, Ellis is viewed by some pundits and politicos as lacking the political instincts and hard-ball mentality that are sometimes required to be a successful executive.
As one source observes: "You can have good intentions and great ideas, but you can't get anything done if you don't have a four-vote majority."
Ellis argues that his victories as CEO have far outnumbered his defeats, and he's almost certainly right. But on the big votes — the ones that make the news — it's seemed that Ellis' will has been stymied at every turn. And, unlike his predecessors, Ellis rarely attends commission meetings, making him something of a nonentity in the eyes of the public. "It looks [to people] like he's disappeared and the commission is doing all the work," observes Dick Williams, publisher of the Dunwoody Crier. "I think he's just off the radar."
There's a history of strong personalities in the role of DeKalb CEO, dating back to Manuel Maloof, for whom the position was created in the early '80s. The trend was self-perpetuating: The CEO position was afforded a lot of power because the position was built for a strong personality, and strong personalities continued to be drawn to the job because of the amount of power they were afforded. Besides overseeing the county's day-to-day operations, the CEO also chaired and set the agenda for commission meetings. That system fostered a sort of kiss-the-ring culture, in which commissioners had to appeal to the CEO if they wanted to see their initiatives move forward.
That changed in 2008 when state lawmakers approved a bill allowing DeKalb commissioners to set their own meeting agenda, giving the board more legislative autonomy. The bill's author, state Sen. Emanuel Jones, told CL it was initiated greatly because of CEO Vernon Jones' power-mongering. Even though it would take some of the teeth out of his position as incoming CEO, Ellis himself supported the legislation. Commissioner Kathie Gannon is among many who believe the change has been positive. "With the former administration, things were just done and you found out about them after," Gannon says. "In this administration, they're out in the open so you can argue them. It's reported [in the news] as disagreement and contention, but I think that's how it's supposed to be."
Ellis' decidedly less assertive posture has made him well-liked among his colleagues. Commissioner Jeff Rader, for instance, describes him as an "accessible and very personally responsive individual." The fact stands, however, that Ellis has yet to establish a dependable voting block within the Commission. What's resulted is the appearance that a "gulf" — as described by one source — exists between the CEO and the commissioners. Ellis dismisses that perception. "That's not true," he says. "We've gotten budgets passed, the stimulus money [assigned], I nominate people for commissions and boards get those approved ... what we have now that we didn't have in the past is a clearer understanding of what the separation of powers are. We operate more like the City of Atlanta than our sister counties."
In a sense, Ellis is the consummate nice guy thrust into a crappy situation. With the economy crumbling about him, Ellis had to deal with the fact that when times were good, his predecessor exercised little foresight. Explains Gannon: "The former CEO had money, so he grew the government to huge, huge excess. For the most part, the Board of Commissioners knew back in 2008 that it was going to be bad. Our cuts got vetoed. Now here we are and it's worse than we even anticipated back then."
Although it wasn't a disaster of his creation, Ellis became responsible for dealing with the fallout: the downsizing, the consolidating of departments, the layoffs and the furloughs.
But not all of Ellis' challenges have been beyond his control. Some of his missteps began even before he took office. Richard Stogner, who served as county COO under Jones, offered to remain on staff — free of charge — to assist the newly elected Ellis with his transition. Ellis refused the offer, and instead hired Keith Barker. Barker was fired last September for having an inappropriate relationship with a fellow county worker. He received $100,000 in severance pay, and Ellis has since rehired Stogner — again, at no salary.
Taxpayers paid another handsome severance — this time to the tune of $45,000 — to Ellis' ousted Chief Communications Officer Sheila Edwards, whose contract was terminated when she referred to the shooting of local bank CEO DeFarra "Dean" Gaymon by Newark, N.J., police as "murder."
Then there's the GM plant. What might've been a shining moment in Ellis' tenure as CEO instead became a lost opportunity. In an AJC editorial this past June, Ellis made his case for using federal stimulus dollars to redevelop the 165-acre Doraville facility into a mixed-use complex. Ellis argued that the public-private project would have created 4,000 new jobs in DeKalb, but wasn't able to close the deal. Arguing that it smacked of a developer give-away, commissioner voted overwhelmingly to deep-six the proposal.
Ever the optimist, Ellis counts the doomed GM deal among his successes.
"What you heard is this 'failed,'" he explains. "It's a complex transaction that ultimately did not get approved. What was important was that we had the conversation about how we should use stimulus money."
Come 2012, we will see if DeKalb voters share that outlook.
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