Nancy Jester first found a public spotlight focused on her when, as a “mom with a blog and calculator”, she exposed a host of financial irregularities within the DeKalb County School Board. Ultimately, six of nine board members were removed by the governor.
Currently, Jester is running for the District 1 County Commission position, and once again she is taking a hard look at the financial irregularities that seem to plague the county. She is running for a position that was vacated by Elaine Boyer who plead guilty in federal court to charges of bilking county taxpayers out of $93,000 through mail fraud conspiracy and wire fraud.
DE- Given Boyer’s activities, the answer to this is obvious- what do you see as the biggest problems facing the Commission as a whole and District 1 in particular?
NJ- Well, the answer is pretty obvious, but it’s not limited to District 1. The Commission and the County at many levels are plagued by a complete breakdown in confidence and trust for government. And it is deserved. When you look at District 1, we had commissioner who plead guilty to stealing money from the taxpayers. Add onto that the CEO was indicted and on trial for shaking down vendors for campaign contributions. (At the time of this interview, the jury was still deliberating in the Burrell Ellis case.) You have a federal prosecutor looking into other commissioners. There’s no confidence that the commissioners are doing their jobs. Many county services are so bad there’s simply no confidence that the county can perform at any level. So issue number one, we have to address the complete breakdown in confidence in county government. That starts with transparency and competence.
DE- There has been considerable demand in DeKalb and other counties for the creation of new cities. Do you see that as a response to corruption at the county level?
NJ- To a great degree, yes. In District 1, you have seen a heavy push to municipalize. We saw that in 2008 with Dunwoody forming, we just had Brookhaven form and there’s a push to form the city of Lakeside and additionally a push to form cities in Tucker and Briarcliff. And that’s in addition to potential annexations to other cities by various groups, some in District 1, some not. Part of the motivation- why did Dunwoody become a city, why did Brookhaven become a city, why the push– well, these city governments have proven themselves to be more effective at delivering services and certainly providing a much more accessible form of government. District 1 has roughly 140,000 citizens. That’s a very large group, so there’s not a sense that you can have any effect, and there’s little in the way of constituent services. So there’s a big push to municipalize and I’m in favor of that. I think municipalization has done good things for DeKalb.
DE- Yet not everyone see it that way.
NJ- That’s true. In fact Elaine Boyer went down to the legislature during the last session and tried to stop organic cityhood movements that had formed. To me, that was just going to the legislature to stop folks from having the right to vote on cityhood. I don’t think that’s right. There are earnest people on both sides of the debate, and some disagreement about where you draw the lines for a city’s boundaries. But I think these people just need an honest broker who isn’t going to try to undercut what they do. And that’s what I think went on last time. There’s some controversy about where boundaries should be drawn and which areas should be part of which cities, but honest people can make compromises and work that out. It’s just difficult to do when your own elected official is operating against your interest to have a referendum or has chosen a side.
DE- Cityhood will address a number of the problems, but not all of them.
NJ- Of course not. There are and will remain, services that the county must provide to sections that are not cities and services that cities still have to avail themselves to- the court system, the water shed department, some may need fire and police services. I support the right of citizens to make the choice— whether or not to form a city—by referendum. And I would think that after the next legislative session, we’ll see that happen again. You’ll see a referendum come perhaps for the city Lakeside, perhaps for the city of Tucker, perhaps for the city of Briarcliff. So I think you need a commissioner who understands that’s what the citizens of the district want. Fine. But they also want good county government. Clean county government. And they want a clean break from the administration of the past, they want a clean break from the corruption of the past.
DE- The fraud and shenanigans are definitely troubling issues, yet DeKalb also seems to have more than its share of problems with simply providing services.
NJ- Absolutely. One of the biggest problems in the county is the Department of Watershed Management. They have had a complete breakdown in the ability to provide customer services. People who would normally get a water bill between $100 and $200 in the summer are getting a $1,000 bill. In fact the mayor of Brookhaven mentioned that in a Town Hall meeting—he had gotten a $900 bill and hadn’t used any irrigation. Certainly, everyone understands that mistakes can happen, equipment can malfunction and meters can be misread. But then we have a service problem. I challenge anyone to call the Watershed Department and see if you can get a human being to answer the phone. See if you can hold on for I don’t know how many hours to get a human being. It is at the point where the only way to rectify your situation is to physically go down to the city of Decatur to the Watershed Department because you cannot get anybody on the phone. People shouldn’t have to drive from all over the county to get a water bill corrected. Think about our elderly or maybe our mobility impaired citizens. It’s a real burden. It’s a burden for families with people going in 15 different directions. It’s insane. Customer service has completely collapsed in that department. It’s a county-wide issue and has to be fixed.
DE- But you can’t do that if elected officials have no interest in fixing what’s broken. Voters always say they want to eliminate the abuses and inefficiencies, yet they seem to have a penchant for electing or reelecting people who don’t take care of business or abuse their positions. That’s not limited to DeKalb. A few years ago, Gwinnett County had similar problems with two commissioners being indicted, and the chairman resigning to avoid being indicted. Is it something in the water?
NJ- (laughs) No I don’t think it’s the water, I think some people are very good at hiding their illegal activities and in many cases, transparency and accountability are seriously lacking. And sometimes relationships aren’t very well known. In my race, there are five folks running. I have no ties to Elaine Boyer. I was never appointed to any commissions or had any community involvement on her behalf or related to her. Some of my opposition have had those positions and were appointed by Elaine Boyer and other commissioners. So they have ties to the commission. And if you’re really listening to the citizens of District 1, that’s not what they want. They want somebody who is completely outside of that domain and I’m the only candidate who can credibly offer that. And I think they want accessibility and that’s a big issue for people in District 1 because our last commissioner (Boyer) was not accessible. She did not have meetings, she did not go into the communities.
DE- Have any of the other candidates picked up on that or do they seem to be following in Boyer’s footsteps?
NJ- It doesn’t appear that they are interested in doing anything different. In the last 10 business days, I’ve been to six or seven community meetings whether it was a neighborhood association meeting or a town hall meeting about a cityhood movement or a DeKalb delegation meeting and at each and every one of these meetings, I have been the only candidate for District 1 that has attended. And these are meetings within District 1. I hope the voters understand what that means. If you’re not accessible as a candidate, you certainly won’t be accessible if elected.
DE- Lack of accessibility is certainly a problem voters should recognize, yet given the track record of numerous DeKalb County commissioners, an even bigger problem will be to rebuild trust. How do you propose to do that?
NJ- I am very leery of the word trust when we talk about public service and elected officials. I often say to folks, do not trust anybody you elect, like you would a family member, What I say is you should elect a person who is trustworthy in your opinion, but then you should hold them accountable. And they have to be willing to be held to account. And to do that, they do have to be accessible. And that’s what I will be—and have been. I’ve had a very active web site. I’ve put up documents that maybe the school district or some other entity didn’t make public. I’ve also posted commentary so nobody has to wonder where I stand on an issue because I tell you as it’s happening. I’m also very much available on social media. I have a history of doing those things. None of my opponents can offer that same level of communication. I’m not the new kid on the block for that, I’ve done it for years.
DE- When you were a member of the school board, your public disclosure of spending activity led to the wheels coming off and the governor ultimately stepping in to get the board back on track. I would guess you see similarities between the past problems with the school board and current problems with the commission.
NJ- What was happening at the school board I believe is also happening at the county government. There’s a similarity. The school system was basically using budgets and budget documents as a deception. And if you go to the county’s web site now, good luck finding a budget document, good luck finding current financial information. It’s very opaque. That’s a problem. I will certainly advocate for the government making budget and current financial information available- one click away from the main web site. And to the extent that I can, I’ll publish it on my own personal web site to make it available.
Another problem I see up and down the layers of government in our state is real time disclosure of how your money is being spent. This is not avant garde, it’s not new it’s really old news in other states. You can buy in-the-box software for this. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’m going to put on my own web site an inline check register because each commissioner’s office has its own budget to spend. It’s actually far too much and I will advocate for cutting that down.
DE- Do you think greater transparency would have prevented some of the abuses in the past?
NJ- In many cases, absolutely. Elaine Boyer’s scam was to pay money to an evangelist and then get a kick back. She never would have been able to get away with that if the public could have seen her “purchases”. And regardless of whether someone in government—bureaucrats as well as elected officials—is writing checks or using an electronic purchasing system, there needs to be more oversight. Especially in DeKalb County where it’s the Wild West of accounting controls. That has to be stopped. I hope to be able to get all the commissioners on board with that.
DE- Let’s get back to the push for more cities. When a city forms, it takes on delivery of some of the services formerly provided by the county. When that occurs, there’s less need for personnel at the county level. Has DeKalb County government gotten any smaller in recent years?
NJ- No it hasn’t. We have really failed to shrink county governments as cities have formed and have taken the liabilities for supplying some services off the table. When you don’t have the responsibilities, you have got to reduce the cost of government. Well, they haven’t done that. Besides that, the county government hasn’t been the guardian of the quality of life in DeKalb. There’s been a real top down heavy-handed attitude that has hurt the county over time. People want to control their zoning and the look and feel of their community. That’s why you see a Dunwoody and a Brookhaven and potentially a Lakeside and a Tucker and a Briarcliff. People want that control because the quality of life has really been hurt by the decision county commissioners have made. They have willfully ignored the desires of communities. That has to change. As a commissioner, you’re there to represent the will of the people.