Gwinnett commission clashes over transit board amid proposed expansion

Credit: Photo contributed by the candidate

Credit: Photo contributed by the candidate

As the Gwinnett County commission pushes for a $17 billion transit expansion tax on November 2024 ballots, a partisan fissure has emerged over next year’s representation to the transit advisory board from the Republican District 4 county commissioner.

Commissioner Matthew Holtkamp, the lone Republican on the five-member county commission, was left to search for someone to appoint to the transit board after Democrats voted down his first choice: Laurie McClain, a Republican who led a failed transit expansion effort three years ago while also mounting a failed campaign for a county commission seat.

McClain has an active ethics complaint against the commissioner she lost to, Kirkland Carden of District 1.

“I do have an issue with appointing someone who has had a chance to elevate transit and failed,” said District 2 Commissioner Ben Ku. “This is someone who actively pushed against all my efforts to make a transit system that provides an alternative for everyone in Gwinnett like the transit plan we have now.”

The transit advisory board makes public transportation recommendations to the county commission. It is separate from the various ad hoc committees formed over the years to formulate expansion plans, such as the 2020 transit review committee McClain chaired.

Commissioners voted on McClain’s appointment to the transit advisory board minutes after unanimously approving the latest expansion proposal, which would overhaul the county’s system of buses and vans without including rail.

The plan would add high-frequency buses and a bus rapid transit line from Doraville to Lawrenceville while expanding on-demand microtransit countywide. New lines would run to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport from the Mall of Georgia and Snellville, and routes would run on Sundays for the first time.

County commissioners and staffers have proposed to fund the expansion through a penny sales tax that voters could be asked to approve in November 2024.

Gwinnett voters rejected sales taxes in 2019 and 2020 that would have funded MARTA rail and expanded bus and van lines.

“Commissioner Ku’s comments regarding my stance on transit are wrong,” McClain said in an email. “As a matter of fact, the most recent plan that has been published appears to contain every single option I advocated for while serving as Chair of the Transit Review Committee. The 2020 Committee put out a plan including heavy rail — I was the lone dissent. I didn’t fail — the plan failed because it was expensive and cumbersome.”

McClain added that she thinks the county should wait to ask voters for a new sales tax, given recent high inflation rates.

Holtkamp defended his nominee, saying any differing viewpoints would give the transit advisory board greater legitimacy. But commissioners also cited McClain’s ethics complaint as a reason to oppose her.

McClain filed the complaint in February, noting that Carden was a principal partner in a campaign consulting firm that worked for a state House candidate who was simultaneously suing Gwinnett County.

Carden disclosed the relationship and apologized to his fellow commissioners in January, after the candidate, Om Duggal, lost his election but before the ethics complaint was filed. Because the complaint remains unresolved, Carden recused himself from voting on McClain’s appointment to the transit board.

Ku and County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said Carden would have to recuse himself from voting on the transit board’s recommendations if McClain was a member, although County Attorney Mike Ludwiczak said he’d have to examine each vote on a case-by-case basis.

“I just don’t think that we can forfeit a vote,” Hendrickson said. “We have business to conduct.”

Hendrickson, Ku and District 3 Commissioner Jasper Watkins III voted against McClain, while Holtkamp voted for her. The commission then voted to table the appointment for a month while Holtkamp finds a replacement nominee.

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