Reforming the Fulton County Commission will take more than good intent

Candidate vows to make Fulton County work for us." Good luck with that"

Barring a Martian invasion, it seems certain that longtime community activist Joan Garner will be the next member of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. Her campaign war chest resembles the gross domestic product of a small island nation, her list of endorsements reads like a who's who of Atlanta movers and shakers, and her resume — including stints leading gay advocacy groups, granting organizations and various other do-gooder nonprofits — could overload a computer hard drive.

In short, Garner is the very model of a qualified candidate who's paid her dues.

Too bad all that experience and a career's worth of building connections may soon be sucked into a black hole of political dysfunction.

To say that the Fulton Commission is a toxic waste dump of wasted potential and shattered ideals is like saying Rod Blagojevich has a soft spot for TV cameras.

Why is it so easy to become cynical about the governing board of Georgia's largest county?

Well, for starters, the Commission is more entrenched than the Kaiser's artillery corps. The only reason Garner and three other Democratic candidates entered the District 6 race is because incumbent Nancy Boxill committed an aberrant act completely out of keeping with the accepted standards of her office: She decided to retire.

Boxill, who represents central and eastern Atlanta, isn't stepping down to run for another post or being forced out by criminal indictment — historically, the two most popular reasons for leaving the Fulton Commission (no joke there; that's just a fact) — but is simply calling it a day after 23 years in office.

All seven Commission seats are up for re-election in 2010, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the July 20 primary ballot, where the only contest is to fill Boxill's open seat.

In the far Republican end of the county, departing Commissioner Lynne Riley — running for a state House seat — has effectively awarded her own District 3 post to a hand-picked successor, Johns Creek City Councilwoman Liz Hausmann, who drew no challengers.

Likewise, in Sandy Springs, Tom Lowe — already the longest-serving elected official in Georgia — is running unopposed for his tenth four-year term, despite the fact that, at 81, his meeting attendance has become increasingly spotty.

The two South Fulton district commissioners, Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards, also are skating to re-election unmolested, while the two at-large members, Robb Pitts and Chairman John Eaves, each have little-known Republican opponents they won't have to face until November.

But let's face it: The last time an incumbent Fulton commissioner failed to win re-election to his seat was in 1986. As elected offices go, it's the closest thing metro Atlanta has to a lifetime appointment.

The Commission is also hindered by its overly democratic structure, occupying the opposite end of the spectrum from DeKalb, where the powerful CEO runs day-to-day operations and can veto commission decisions.

In Fulton, the Commission chairman presides over meetings and sits on a few regional boards, but has no more say over county policy — from setting the budget to hiring personnel to deciding where to build senior centers — than a district commissioner. In essence, he's a glorified parliamentarian who is doomed to ineffectiveness by the constraints of the position.

The result has been elected officials who treat themselves like royalty — complete with chauffeured car service in past years — because there's no one to make them behave.

Even as close to 90 percent of the county's real estate has incorporated into new cities or been annexed into existing ones as residents strive to put political distance between themselves and the Commission, the board continues to reject suggestions that it needs to reform or radically downsize county government.

It's not uncommon for the part-time commissioners to maintain a four-member staff and multiple offices at a total annual cost of more than $400,000, even though they no longer deal with the zoning issues that once generated a bulk of constituent concerns.

During the recent economic downturn, commissioners have managed to balance the county budget largely by pulling about $100 million from reserve funds. Only this year did the Commission take a tentative stab at making some painful decisions about cutting programs and staff.

Sit in on any Commission meeting and you're likely to see members belittling county staffers; offering grandstanding but ultimately irrelevant resolutions; complaining about the management of Grady Memorial Hospital, MARTA and other agencies; sniping openly at each other; and, most notably, protecting their own political turf.

Some, like Darnell, continue to fight the civil-rights battles of 30 years ago against perceived oppressors. Edwards specializes in lashing out at would-be reformers as racists. Eaves, well-meaning and endlessly patient, is impotent in his inability to rein in his colleagues. Lowe, long a confirmed cynic where the board is concerned, is content to engage in the few fights he knows he can win.

Granted, the presumed future members, Garner and Hausman, will bring new blood to the Commission. But this calcified fossil of a board can't be saved by a mere transfusion. What it needs is wholesale organ transplant and maybe a bionic limb or two — courtesy of a structural overhaul that can only be performed by the General Assembly.

If the past two decades are any indication, change is unlikely to come to the Fulton Commission from within.

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