Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Governor Nathan Deal has enjoyed a general level of policy success during his first two years in office in a way that would not necessarily have been predicted during a long and often bitter gubernatorial campaign. He has formed coalitions within his own party and across the aisle. He has worked with Democratic Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to fund a port expansion in Savannah and fix the transportation grid in Atlanta. He was able to bring key Democrats on board to push through reforms to the HOPE Scholarship program, Georgia’s third rail of politics.
He’s implemented sentencing reform and tax reform. He’s set the state on a course to build new reservoirs for Atlanta while racking up legal victories protecting the state’s right to water from Lake Lanier. On most decisions of policy, the governor has pleased the partisans and won tacit approval from many Democrats. By most measures, the Governor has had a successful first two years in office.
Where the Governor continues to fall flat, however, is over the subject of cronyism. Governors certainly have the prerogative to appoint the people of their choosing. It would be unnatural to expect a Governor to appoint his adversaries, though Governor Zell Miller once did that by appointing his former opponent Johnny Isakson to head the State School Board. Generally, however, Governors will appoint those close to them who have exhibited loyalty and trust. This is nothing new.
Deal’s use of appointments and re-appointments has thus far exhibited that “independent boards” is an oxymoron. Longtime Republican activist Warren Budd was not reappointed to the state’s Department of Natural Resources board after he openly complained that the location of reservoirs under the Governor’s plan were too heavily weighted north of Atlanta and served interests of connected developers.
The Executive Secretary of the State Ethics Commission and her chief assistant were removed from their positions as they sought subpoenas in ethics cases against the Governor. The Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff went so far as to call Budd’s removal a “teachable moment” for others who serve at the pleasure of the Governor.
On Friday leading into the 4th of July holiday week, the Governor somewhat quietly appointed three close political allies to the board of the Georgia Ports Authority. Ken Cronan of Gainesville, the Governor’s business partner for decades; James Walters of Gainesville, the Governor’s banker, landlord and campaign donor to the tune of $30,000; and Hugh Tarbutton of Sandersville, also a large campaign donor, according to the AJC.
The precedent of appointing the closest allies to the potentially lucrative board seats overseeing Georgia’s ports was clearly set by former Governor Perdue, who also installed much of his campaign team and a cousin to oversee the board. Perdue’s business interests were later entertained with private meetings with ports management as they sought to grow their presence at the rapidly expanding port.
While Tarbutton has logistics experience with the Sandersville Railroad in Southeast Georgia, the two other appointees from Gainesville experience seems to be wholly their relationship to Deal. Most troubling is the appointment of Ken Cronan, whose various business dealings with the Governor have resulted in ethics complaints leveled both at the Congressional level and which remain pending before the State ethics commission. Deal resigned his seat in Congress with the federal ethics complaints unresolved.
Governor Deal has put a great deal of time and bi-partisan effort to galvanize support for funding the expansion of the port of Savannah. Appointing his business partner to oversee the port is yet another example of the Governor’s tone deaf understanding of ethics.
Ken Cronan has been the governor’s chief agent for his personal business interests during his time in public service, often tied directly to government connections. Placing him on the board of the Port of Savannah during this critical time that funding is being secured for much needed expansion gives opponents of deepening the harbor unnecessary ammunition to criticize and possibly block federal funding.
The Governor also makes this appointment at a time when voters are asked to approve billions of new tax dollars for transportation improvements via T-SPLOST referendums this month. Opponents of the measures are already citing a reluctance to give significant new money to a system rife with cronyism. The Governor’s ill timed appointment will do little to allay their fears. If anything, it should make anyone on the fence about T-SPLOST strongly consider moving into the solid “no” camp.
The Governor has demonstrated that he and his team can be quite adept at understanding prevailing political winds and converting the desires of multiple constituencies into sound legislation. It is time he and his staff did the same with a cold hard look at the public’s perception of the state’s and their office’s ethics practices.
The people now have two chances to voice their concerns to the governor on July 31st. They can vote for the non-binding referendums on gift caps on each party’s ballot. They can also choose to deny a government upwards of 10 Billion in new tax dollars to be put into a system that seems designed to reward those in power and close to them.