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An interesting discussion has begun in one of Georgia’s largest counties concerning what form of government is best to serve its 700,000 residents.
DeKalb County interim CEO Lee May recently held a series of town hall meetings to talk about its current structure. May wants to end the county’s existing form of government, particularly the CEO position. He has said he’d explore the possibility of a full-time county commission or a full-time commission chair. Any such changes must be approved by the Georgia Legislature, which may review proposals in the upcoming session.
May brought University of North Carolina School of Government associate professor Kimberly Nelson to the town hall meetings to explain the forms of government used across the country. One form of county government, she said, is as antiquated as the VCR.
"The commission form of government is definitely losing favor in the United States," Nelson said at a Dec. 3 forum held at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church in Tucker.
PolitiFact Georgia was at the meeting. We wanted to figure out if what Nelson told the audience was correct.
DeKalb’s seven commission seats technically are part-time jobs, although many commissioners argue they work full time. In addition to the publicly elected commissioners, DeKalb has a chief executive officer who is elected by the voters and is in charge of the county’s operations. While commissioners approve some contracts and the annual budget, the CEO wields great power. For example, the CEO can change purchasing policy without the approval of commissioners. Many say that is the most unique form of county government in Georgia.
Most U.S. counties use one of three forms of government. The largest number of counties use the "commission" form, in which a board of commissioners -- or sometimes a lone commissioner -- runs the county’s day-to-day operations.
The second is the "administrator/manager" form of government, by which commissioners hire someone to run the county’s operations, like Cobb County’s current structure. The third is the "elected executive" form where county residents vote for someone to lead and run the government, much like DeKalb’s current structure.
Nelson handed out fliers that contained a breakdown of which forms of governments were used by the nation’s 3,000 or so counties in 1989 and in 2001.
"The CEO form and the administrator form are both considered reforms from the traditional commission form of county government. So, in most states, any change is a change away from the commission form," Nelson told us via email.
The breakdown was done by the National Association of Counties.
Nelson told PolitiFact Georgia she had a more recent breakdown, but she hadn’t had a chance to finish scrubbing the data for any potential errors.
The National Association of Counties released its latest such report in March 2009, based on data collected in 2008. Our state-by-state review of the report found that the commission form of government was used by about 42 percent of U.S. counties. Approximately 34 percent of counties use the administrator/manager form of government, while 21 percent have an elected executive form of government. The remaining 3 percent have miscellaneous forms of government.
Our review of the 2009 report shows, as Nelson said, there is a decrease in the percentage of counties that currently use a traditional commission form of government. An elected executive form of government is also on the rise.
In Georgia, about two-thirds of the state’s 159 counties use the administrator/manager form, according to the 2009 report.
"The transition has moved to more professional management and less traditional management," said Dave Willis, government relations manager of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
More counties are moving toward hiring an administrator because of the array of duties associated with operating a county government, said National Association of Counties spokesman Jim Phillips.
"As things get more complicated and counties have more services to provide, they move to an administrator instead of an elected board," he said.
Some other metro Atlanta counties are having as much trouble as DeKalb concerning which form of government is best.
In Clayton, for example, commissioners decided in January to remove the county manager position, which gave Commission Chairman Jeff Turner more power. Turner hired a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer. By November, commissioners were talking about restoring the county manager position.
In Fulton County, leaders there have discussed elevating the commission chair's authority while making it tougher to fire the county manager. State lawmakers may take up both proposals in next year's legislative session, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported.
To sum up, Nelson said at a DeKalb County town hall meeting on the current structure of county government that "the commission form of government is definitely losing favor in the United States." Anecdotal information and the most comprehensive report on counties support her point.
Our rating: True.
National Association of Counties, "County Government Structure: A State by State Report," March 2009.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Officials propose full-time pay," Aug. 26, 2013.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Poll: Change DeKalb government," Sept. 20, 2013.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "County manager plan divisive," Nov. 1, 2013.
Email from University of North Carolina associate professor Kimberly Nelson, Dec. 5, 2013.
Telephone interview with Jim Phillips, National Association of Counties, Dec. 11, 2013.
Telephone interview with Dave Willis, Association County Commissioners of Georgia, Dec. 11, 2013.
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