DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — A new report from DeKalb County’s independent internal auditor finds that the county’s troubled code enforcement office sometimes takes hundreds of days to clear up citizen complaints and does little or nothing to ensure the accountability of its workers.
The draft audit — which county executives can still contest until mid-February — was obtained by Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher, who has been digging into DeKalb’s code enforcement problems for more than four years.
The head of Beautify DeKalb — the larger county agency that oversees code enforcement — left in early 2018 after Channel 2 Action News uncovered that Marcus Kellum was accepting outside consulting or speaking fees while on the county payroll. But the problems ran much deeper than that.
The new draft audit, obtained through an open records request, concludes that several operations problems discovered in 2017 haven’t been corrected, and there’s a long list of new ones.
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Among the uncorrected problems from 2017: DeKalb promised a 90-day plan to ensure that workers were properly documenting and investigating complaints; there was an inconsistency in the documents placed in case files; and there was a failure to perform inspections within a reasonable time.
Among the problems identified in the draft audit completed last month: 825 cases sampled by auditors remained open for an average of 489 days; 64% of inspections sampled were not completed within 72 hours as required; and no code enforcement employees received performance evaluations for 10 years.
“It ties in with the police and the broken windows theory. Code enforcement is the first step in having a safe, clean, dignified community,” community activist Joe Arrington told Belcher.
Arrington and Joel Edwards of Restore DeKalb are both troubled that code enforcement workers are not being given performance reviews — and haven’t been since 2010.
“The problems, in my opinion, is lack of accountability,” says Edwards.
Arrington says the responsibility starts with management.
“How can employees know what to do and how they’re going to be evaluated, if there are no written rules?” he told Belcher.
Jocelyn O’Neil regularly files complaints with code enforcement. She told us she has a message for DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond: “I wish some of these people were living in his neighborhood, because the message is that he’s not concerned about what’s going on in the other parts of DeKalb County.”
“We recognize that there is work that has to be done,” county spokesman Andrew Cauthen said in a Zoom interview with Channel 2.
But Cauthen says DeKalb has made dramatic progress against blight since Thurmond took office in 2017.
He says that includes the demolition or abatement of more than 450 substandard or dangerous properties, a $361,000 study to identify code enforcement and blight problems, and the installation of a $90,000 software program to track cases more effectively.
But he says the county isn’t ready to accept the audit’s findings.
“We don’t accept anything in the audit until it’s finalized,” he told Belcher, who asked if Cauthen knows whether code employees are getting performance reviews.
“I don’t know particularly. No, I don’t know,” Cauthen responded.
County officials argue that blight can’t be defeated by code enforcement alone. It also requires work by the courts and prosecutors who have the final say after the county issues citations.
Cauthen notes that courts have been slowed or halted for almost two years because of the public health crisis.
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