Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May won’t run for election

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May announced Friday he won’t run for a full term, clearing the way for a different leader to deal with the county government’s problems.

May, who was appointed 2½ years ago to replace suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, said he plans to leave the county’s conflicts behind when this term expires at the end of the year and pursue a career in ministry.

May has presided over DeKalb government during a time of crisis, with officials and employees convicted for bribery, kickbacks and abusing taxpayers’ money. Other elected officials have been accused of wasteful spending and unethical behavior.

May said he wasn’t influenced by a corruption investigation that called for him to resign, but he acknowledged the difficulties of leading a county through a tough period.

“It was a trying time. No one wants to see your name plastered in the paper,” May told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Ultimately the decision I’m making is one that my wife and I have made, and we’re not feeling pressure from anyone.”

It will be up to voters to choose May’s replacement to run the county of 722,000 residents and a $1.3 billion budget.

May said he’s throwing his support behind former DeKalb schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond, who is considering a campaign to become DeKalb’s chief executive. Two candidates have announced they’re running: former DeKalb Commissioner Connie Stokes and retired MARTA employee Calvin Sims.

DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester, who wanted May to resign in the wake of last fall’s corruption report, said May has made better decisions since then, including appointments of new department heads and efforts to clean up the dilapidated Brannon Hill condo complex.

“The key will be what happens next,” Jester said. “Will we see the old-style politics come back into DeKalb? Will we see the DeKalb machine politics in the CEO’s race, or do we have someone who can do what’s in the best interest of taxpayers from every corner of the county?”

May would have faced tough competition if he had campaigned for office this year, though he said he was confident he would have won.

“Who is going to run that can lift the county from this situation?” asked George Turner, a resident in May’s former southeast DeKalb district who ran for county commission last year. “Given everything that’s going on, it would have been difficult to use this as a springboard to get elected.”

A resident who has called for May’s resignation, Jeff Long, said he looks forward to choosing a new CEO in the May 24 primary election. The primary usually decides the next CEO because DeKalb is a heavily Democratic county.

“Citizens are paying attention now in DeKalb County, and just getting by isn’t sufficient,” Long said. “We’re going to expect responsible and adequate leadership, and not cronyism and corruption.”

Until Ellis was indicted, May was a county commissioner representing about 140,000 residents.

May ascended to the county government’s top job in July 2013 when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to take over for Ellis, whom a jury last year convicted of attempted extortion and perjury.

Though Ellis is now in prison, he remains the county’s suspended CEO until his appeals are exhausted, and May never lost his “interim” title.

In an attempt to root out corruption, May ordered an outside investigation of the county last year by former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde.

Their Sept. 30 report said there was “a stunning absence of leadership” in DeKalb, with more than $500,000 in questionable spending and allegations that county employees accepted bribes and drove a county vehicle while drunk.

The investigators also accused May of obstructing their investigation, improperly borrowing money from a subordinate and failing to provide leadership.

The GBI said last month it won’t launch further investigations based on the report because its allegations didn’t amount to crimes.

“That served as a level of vindication for me,” May said Friday. “It was an unfortunate situation of how that progressed. Remember, I called for the special investigation, and unfortunately the individuals that were investigating us took a different tack, but that had no influence on my decision.”

Crime and corruption in DeKalb need to be addressed by the county’s next CEO, said one of the candidates to succeed May.

“I’m running because I feel like I can do better,” said Stokes, a former state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor. “I’m the best person that can lead DeKalb out of the mess that we’re in. … I want to have the type of government that will be open, honest and transparent.”

Thurmond was traveling and unavailable for comment Friday, but an adviser said May’s announcement that he won’t run for election was “thoughtful and selfless.”

“His decision showed a tremendous amount of leadership in that he’s putting what’s best for DeKalb County first,” said Tharon Johnson, a senior adviser to Thurmond, a former Georgia Labor Commissioner. “He is aware like all of us of the tremendous record of Michael Thurmond when it comes to public education and creating jobs in the region.”

Sims didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who won a special election last year after May resigned his commission seat, said a lot depends on who’s elected to replace May.

“May was thrust into a situation where he did what he felt at the moment was best for DeKalb,” Johnson said. “I hope the citizens of DeKalb will choose the best candidate.”

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