By guest columnist SUSAN NEUGENTChairman Emeritus of the Fernbank Museum.
Known in archaic 20th century parlance as the integral Encyclopedia Britannica on two legs, Jeff Rader will complete his term as DeKalb County Commissioner at the end of this year, after sixteen years of public service.
Rader won election for the first time in the highly engaged district in 2006 and was reelected to three additional terms unopposed. I am confident that the district would have re-elected him if he had been willing to continue serving. Instead, Rader begins 2023 with plans for Act III.
Rader’s top voters were residents of District 2, which includes heavily involved communities such as Decatur, Emory, Fernbank, Candler Park, Brookhaven and Oak Grove. But his advocacy for honest, transparent and effective citizen-centered government was felt throughout DeKalb and throughout the metro area.
Through his leadership, DeKalb County gained more parks and trails; implemented smarter infrastructure and transportation solutions; developed nationally recognized animal services; benefited from enhanced financial supervision; fostered sustainable economic development systems; and used holistic land use practices. Of course, Rader did not work alone in these efforts; he would be the first to recognize the efforts of his constituents, staff and fellow commissioners, as well as other officials such as the CEO of DeKalb and the county’s delegation to the General Assembly. At the same time, his lucid vision and commitment to thoughtful action made a singular difference.
In addition to his deep knowledge of a remarkably wide range of topics, Rader brought a strong sense of the public good to his efforts, a perspective particularly notable in today’s popular tendency to reflexively criticize the notion of public good. . He’s known for resisting easy wins and digging deep to find long-term solutions. He holds high service standards for himself and has channeled countless citizens into valuable volunteer service in DeKalb County.
Some have found flaws in Rader’s approach. Why, they would ask, is he so reluctant to engage in traditional political horse-trading? Why can’t he just turn a blind eye – in the interest of expediency – when confronted with betrayals of public trust or some other form of mischief?
The answer is that it wouldn’t have been Jeff Rader. And DeKalb is a better place because he stayed true to himself.
Rader’s breadth of knowledge and ability to juggle varied interests has allowed him to put a major mark on a range of sustainable and meaningful projects, programs and systems.
Many cite parks, trails and pedestrian communities as the first of his many accomplishments. Its commission district is the most densely populated district in DeKalb County. When it first took office, however, it had the lowest per capita area of parks and green space. Today, much ground has been gained with major acquisitions of public parks and improvements to these assets. He has leveraged public funds with private and charitable funds, leveraging relationships with organizations such as Friends of DeKalb Parks and Park Pride to greatly advance green space initiatives.
A recent example of Rader’s focus on planning, equity and stakeholder values is his advocacy for public improvements and trail connectivity during the rezoning effort of the North Dekalb Mall site in 2022, which previously failed due to a previous developer’s failure to adhere to public aspects. of this regime. Now, the 75-acre mall site is poised to become a model mixed-use project featuring affordable housing, significant park space, walkable design and a creative tax allocation district designed to fund more $20 million in pedestrian safety and connectivity projects connecting the mall site to Emory and the entire region.
Others might point to Rader’s tireless advocacy for the Office of Independent Internal Audit as his most significant contribution to the citizens of DeKalb. In the interest of promoting efficiency, effectiveness and integrity, this relatively new addition to county government has completed nearly 40 independent financial and performance audits of DeKalb’s operations in the areas of procurement and contracting, from watershed management, public works, animal services, workforce development, code law enforcement and other departments reveal important – and otherwise unknown – actionable insights on these operations.
Another prominent group of DeKalb citizens would cite his advocacy for the transformation of DeKalb Animal Services into a rescue, home-finding and community-engaged system, from a system where nearly three-quarters of all animals brought to the shelter were euthanized. Ten years after this change, DeKalb continues to boast a rescue rate of over 90% of all animals brought to the shelter and is a national role model.
Proponents of the DeKalb library system, advocates of smarter land use, proponents of public transit, economic development boosters, and those simply concerned with improvements to existing infrastructure would focus on the many measures that he helped the county take on these issues. Still others would point to his leadership in removing the Confederate monument in downtown Decatur and his work to strengthen voter access.
Rader is the rare official who has moved the ball forward on a wide range of issues. At the same time, many of the challenges he tackled remain unfinished business. Like other county leaders, he expressed concern about the confusion and financial instability that the proliferation of municipalities and annexations can create for public services, schools and governments. He also criticized the unconstrained use of abatements which shifts the tax burden of new developments from developers to owners. And he advocated for an overhaul of the county charter, which many believe currently places county operations largely beyond the reach of public accountability.
These challenges will have to be met by new county leaders. But in four scary years, Rader has accomplished a lot. He must feel a deep sense of accomplishment when he hands over the baton of public service. Perhaps his latest achievement as commissioner will serve as a role model for future county leaders.
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