Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Commissioners in Gwinnett County voted 4-0 on Tuesday to not move forward with plans to privatize the county’s Briscoe Field. The heavily Republican county northeast of Atlanta had been considering a public-private partnership which would possibly lead to commercial passenger service from the airfield, acting as a reliever airport to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. The vote appears to close that option for the foreseeable future.
Supporters of the initiative had urged a delay in the vote, noting that one seat on the board is currently vacant in the wake of last week’s guilty plea and resignation from Commissioner Shirley Lasseter. Lasseter was implicated in a scheme involving bribery for favorable zoning votes along with her son, who served on the Gwinnett Zoning Board Of Appeals.
Much of the public opposition to the plan to bring a second passenger airport to Atlanta was based on arguments from nearby neighbors over customary noise and congestion concerns. But the public faith in elected officials to turn one of the county’s prized assets over to a private entity must be considered in the lack of support. Lasseter, after all, is only the latest commissioner to be implicated in a public corruption scandal.
Just two years ago, Commissioner Kevin Kenerly was indicted for allegedly receiving up to $1 Million in bribes related to various land deals, as well as a few counts of failing to disclose relationships with a company that successfully sought two rezoning requests. Those charges are still pending. At the same time, Commission Chairman Charles Bannister chose to resign his position in exchange for the D.A. agreeing to not pursue an indictment.
Gwinnett residents have also been given reasons to doubt promises made by their commissioners when sold the benefits of public-private partnerships given the promises made when the county purchased land and constructed a stadium for the Atlanta Braves AAA minor league ball club. Commissioners approved the land purchase in 2008 and ultimately spent $64 Million of taxpayers’ funds, promising that the project would pay for itself with revenues from the stadium and new tax dollars from surrounding development.
Instead, the stadium is not producing significant positive revenue, and the plans for upscale residential and commercial space have not come to fruition. Instead, zoning requests to convert much of the adjacent land to apartment development are proceeding. The debt service is now primarily covered by a new 3% car rental tax.
Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Investments, is clearly agitated with the Commission’s decision to shut down the process. His company, which operates 37 airports, spent 3 years working on the project and submitted a 600 page proposal outlining their plans to invest $110 Million at Briscoe. His opinion is that “the whole process was handled disgracefully” by the commission, and that “the shenanigans in this case were way off the charts”. The commission blocked Propeller from making its proposal public to help win public support.
But Gwinnett’s citizens are right to be skeptical of a commission that has repeatedly demonstrated that close working and financial relationships with those seeking votes trump concerns of the citizens and county as a whole. The growing lack of faith in government and its public servants has a message that can easily be projected statewide. Propeller’s timing is unfortunate in that their proposal landed just as an unconvinced public has tuned in to the lack of appropriate separation between local officials and those seeking to influence them.
Average Georgians continue to grow frustrated with public officials who grow more and more dependent on the relationships with moneyed interests seeking favorable legislation and votes. Elected officials continue to act with indignity when questioned if greater controls are needed, and feign surprise when yet another is exposed to have crossed ethical and legal lines.
At the state level, the concern will be registered on the July primary ballot with a question whether gifts from lobbyists need to be capped at $100 per occurrence. While likely to receiving overwhelming public support, that solution alone will not fix the problem. At the state level, there is no oversight. State officials largely police themselves, which means most often there is no effort to police bad actions at all.
Propeller may have had a worthy proposal. It is irrelevant due to a lack of confidence in the government that would have to take the initiative to implement it.
There is cost of public corruption. It is much higher than the dollars involved. It is the cost of undermining our very system of government. Gwinnett is but the latest example of a degenerative illness that many state leaders still refuse to treat. As such, the costs continue to rise for us all.