DeKalb Co. clearing land for project commissioners say they never approved

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:

The proposed track would cost about $1 million to build, and is projected to bring in about $15,000 a year.

Channel 2 Action News has uncovered nearly $100,000 spent on a DeKalb County project that County Commissioners say they haven't even approved.

"I'm outraged. What is the purpose of having a legislative policy branch of government if you ignore what they say?" said DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer.

Crews have been clearing acres of land off of Rock Chapel Road in Lithonia to make way for a soapbox derby track. But County Commissioners have delayed signing a contract for the proposed track four times in the last six months.

"That seems a little limited, having a soapbox derby, because many kids can't use that. Soap box derbies are run a couple of times a year, it's just not a wise investment," said Boyer.

The proposed track would cost about $1 million to build, and is projected to bring in about $15,000 a year.

"We did not want it, and we did not give a go-ahead," said Boyer, adding that the commissioners have directed county staff to research other ideas like a BMX bike track or a skateboarding park.

DeKalb County Chief Operating Officer Richard Stogner defended the land clearing, telling investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer that the CEO authorized it.

"If the board wanted to say 'we don't want to do this project', I think the appropriate action would have been to vote the contract down," said Stogner.

He pointed out that commissioners did agree to buy the land, and add the soapbox derby track to a list of potential projects. But Boyer, who sits on the Budget and Finance Committee, says they did not authorize spending money on it yet.

"They are spending money and we were told they weren't. They were using county crews just to pick up stuff just to make it look nice, and that is absolutely not what has happened," said Boyer.

Records show nearly $92,000 spent on materials, tree removal, engineering and construction crews so far.

"The problem we have is someone's going to have to pay the bill, and unless they have the votes to do it, I guess the people who are owed the money are going to have to sue," said Boyer.

Stogner indicated the bills would be covered by existing parks and recreation bond money, previously approved by voters. However, the CEO only has authority to approve payments up to $50,000. More expensive work requires  the commissioners' approval.

Stogner told Fleischer he expects the project to keep moving forward, despite commissioners' objections.

"We would go on probably and keep on doing what we're doing," said Stogner, at first indicating crews were trying to keep the project 'on schedule'. When pressed, he acknowledged there was no specific schedule for completing the work.

"So you're going to build it even if they don't approve a contract?" Fleischer asked Stogner.

"We may not need a contract," he replied, adding, "I think (we) will probably do as much as (we) can to get it to a situation where we then need someone to come in and finish it up. And then we will probably have to go back to the board for approval in terms of doing that."

He acknowledged that the soapbox derby project is a personal priority for CEO Burrell Ellis, who participated in soapbox racing when he was a child.

Boyer says he had no right to authorize work to begin without a contract.

"He's going to have to explain to the public why, in the face of the policy makers, he is arbitrarily making these decisions, because that's not how our governance works," said Boyer, "We have not approved this project. If we'd approved this project, it would not still be on the budget and finance agenda for the last six months."

Fleischer asked Stogner what will happen if the work continues, and commissioners never approve the project.

"If four people vote to stop the project and the CEO vetoes that, it takes five people to override the veto," said Stogner.

When Fleischer pointed out that he still couldn't construct the track without a contract, Stogner said, "We'd have to cross that point when we come to it; that'd be another standoff."