Opinion - Reforming Fulton County

Lawmakers have a rare chance to reshape the county government; will they go big?

There are plenty of ideas floating around the Gold Dome about how the operations of Georgia's largest county could be improved.

State Rep. Ed Lindsey of Buckhead wants to "reduce the footprint of Fulton County government." His fellow Republican, Rep. Wendell Willard of Sandy Springs, hopes to instill a "more realistic way of governing." Another GOP House member, former Fulton Commissioner Lynne Riley of Johns Creek, is even more ambitious. "I have three goals: to reduce taxes, promote better service delivery, and achieve better representation," she says.

And to think many of us would be half-satisfied if Fulton's elected leadership stopped calling each other names and building white-elephant amphitheaters in the middle of nowhere.

Much as it often seems distasteful to see state lawmakers meddling in the affairs of local jurisdictions, the freewheeling catalogue of dysfunctions that is the Fulton County government isn't likely to be cured from the inside.

Thanks to demographic shifts — with an assist from gerrymandering — the would-be reformers at the Gold Dome finally have enough votes within the Fulton delegation to alter the county's governance structure. They haven't yet decided exactly what course to take, but they already have a few suggestions left over from a 2007 House study committee helmed by Lindsey, the lower chamber's majority whip.

But the first step is likely to be dictated by the state Reapportionment Office, which is responsible for determining who lives where. Because growth in Fulton's top end has outstripped population gains in the southern part of the county over the past decade, it's likely that the commission districts will need to be shifted north, a move that should give North Fulton more political clout within the commission.

Fulton's population growth has also derailed lawmakers' hopes of shrinking the size of the seven-member commission, but they seem to agree that the at-large seat currently held by Robb Pitts should no longer be elected countywide because, well, that just never made any damn sense.

Twenty years ago, Fulton had three at-large seats, including the chairman's post, but one of those was changed into a regular district seat with the last redistricting a decade ago. The notion of turning Pitts' seat into a locally elected district seat has been assailed by some as an effort to dilute minority voting strength. But with African-Americans now making up less than 45 percent of Fulton's population, that argument seems a tough sell. It also seems somewhat moot, considering that while Pitts is a black Democrat, he hails from Buckhead, is chummy with Republican businessmen, and votes like a human weather vane. Pitts, by the way, is widely expected to run for commission chairman next year. He could not be reached for comment.

In addition to redrawing district lines, lawmakers are set on beefing up the power of the commission chairman to bring the position more in line with counties like Cobb and Gwinnett. Under Fulton's current weak-chairman system, the chair effectively serves as a glorified parliamentarian and all-around punching bag. Watch any commission meeting and you're likely to witness at least one you're-not-the-boss-of-me bitch-slap delivered to the well-meaning but hapless Chairman John Eaves by his colleagues.

"Down there, you've got no one in charge," laments Willard, who is considering giving the chairman the authority to set the commission agenda. Currently, an individual commissioner can add any item he or she wants to the agenda, which is why you often read about inflammatory resolutions that often serve only to earn the board more highly placed enemies.

An alternate approach being discussed would require at least two votes to place an item on the agenda, a move that would do little to curb the excesses of South Fulton Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards, the board's two most enthusiastic bomb-throwers.

Willard would also like to give the county manager more job security, perhaps by mandating that he or she cannot by fired by a four-vote majority without cause. Insiders say this measure likely stems from an alleged attempt last year by several commissioners to pink-slip then-County Manager Zachary Williams that failed when one commissioner customarily flip-flopped.

Williams subsequently jumped ship to DeKalb County last month, leaving Fulton without a permanent day-to-day manager at a time when it is facing a $70 million budget shortfall; has seven department-head vacancies; and is embroiled in a state investigation of its ever-bungling elections division.

In his place, commissioners temporarily named County Attorney David Ware, who is currently the focus of a sexual harassment suit filed in November by three of his former female employees. Ware is fighting the claims.

Lindsey wants to restrict the scope of services the county provides, in recognition of the fact that all but a corner of South Fulton has been incorporated into new cities. Currently, the county performs a number of municipal functions — including operating libraries and senior centers and doling out arts grants — that are not among the duties mandated by state law.

While Lindsey concedes that the state does not traditionally step in to tell counties how to spend their money, "Fulton is a unique situation." Unique or not, Lindsey can expect plenty of push-back from mayors who don't want to hike city taxes to pay for services now provided by the county. Or from lawmakers who might view such a move as a breach of local control.

Although Riley is largely mum on details of how she hopes to increase efficiencies in county government, she says, "The new cities have been able to do more with less and I look forward to seeing the county do the same."

As the newly named chairperson of the Fulton House Delegation and a former commissioner, it's likely that Riley will carry whatever legislation eventually emerges from the ongoing discussions.

Left aside for the moment is any talk of decapitating Fulton to create, or, rather, re-create Milton County, a move many lawmakers in the county's north end still crave. All things in good time.

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