Fulton authority halts controversial payouts as tensions with county mount

Fulton County commissioners are scrutinizing per diem payments by the county's development authority. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Fulton County commissioners are scrutinizing per diem payments by the county's development authority. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Amid mounting public scrutiny and unanswered legal questions, the Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) on Thursday suspended $200 per diems paid to appointed board members.

The action comes two days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the authority paid out nearly $800,000 in per diem since 2015, and that the Fulton County Commission could find no record it ever authorized any per diem for DAFC board members, as required by state law.

Tensions between the commissioners and DAFC escalated Wednesday when DFAC representatives failed to show up to Wednesday’s board of commissioners meeting.

Commissioner Natalie Hall said she invited a DAFC representative but was told a “crisis management expert” working for the authority advised the representative not to go.

That prompted Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts to send a letter Thursday calling on DAFC Chairman and interim executive director Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV to appear before commissioners July 14.

“We have questions and we need answers,” Pitts wrote in the letter obtained by the AJC.

Four development authorities in Georgia meet state requirements to pay per diem fees to board members to reimburse directors for their time, but DAFC is the only one that does. The $200 rate is nearly double the per diem paid to regents in the university system.

Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts wants the county's development authority to answer questions about per diem payouts at a commission meeting July 14. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

In suspending per diem payments, Turpeau said in a statement Thursday that DFAC assumed a previous iteration of the Fulton Board of Commissioners had set the $200 rate, as required by state law.

“Keeping that in mind ... DAFC will suspend all per diem payments until the Board of Commissioners makes a determination about per diem moving forward,” Turpeau said.

Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV, seen here in a recen specially called Zoom meeting, is the chairman of the Development Authority of Fulton County.

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On Wednesday, Hall said she learned from the county attorney that “the vote for this current per diem at $200 per meeting was actually done by the Development Authority of Fulton County board, which goes against the law.”

“They did not have the authority to set that per diem to begin with,” Hall said.

Multiple Fulton commissioners told the AJC that DAFC board members should give back per diems, which since 2015 total more than $350,000 for one former authority member and more than $100,000 for two others who recently left the board.

But DAFC didn’t have a per diem policy until November, which experts say may make it more difficult for Fulton claw the money back from board members.

Meeting no-show questioned

Officials offered conflicting accounts for why DAFC representatives failed to appear at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“I asked them if there was someone that could come forward from the Development Authority of Fulton County and speak to us today and one of the responses I received was that the crisis management expert advised against it,” Commissioner Hall said.

In May 2020, DAFC contracted with Jackson Spalding, an Atlanta public relations firm, for services. Turpeau said in an email the authority pays the firm $130 to $275 per hour for advice.

Anne Lerner, a Jackson Spalding account representative, attributed DFAC’s no-show to a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

“DAFC will be at the Board of Commissioners meeting on July 14,” Lerner said.

Asked why the authority did not send a representative to appear Wednesday before the commission, Turpeau replied: “We did not feel that it was necessary to appear at the meeting because we thought that the discussion was only relating to the amount of the per diem and we felt that the Commissioners should make that determination.”

“Commissioners know we are always available to answer any of their questions and concerns directly as we have done in the past and will continue to do so,” Turpeau said.

While the per diem issue remains unresolved, Fulton commissioners appointed two new members Wednesday: Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney representing Fulton schools and Erica M. Long representing Atlanta Public Schools.

Our reporting

The AJC reported June 16 that appointed board members of the Development Authority of Fulton County had collected nearly $800,000 in per diem since 2015. The AJC also reported that Fulton commissioners did not believe the county had ever set per diem for the authority, as required by law, and some said authority members should give back the money. A June 1 investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News found that some authority members collected $200 per diem checks simply for signing official documents or for each item listed on meeting agendas. The authority has suspended per diem following the AJC’s reporting, and Fulton commissioners are weighing what action to take.