Tax breaks given for apartments connected to Chamblee mayor

The city of Chamblee’s economic development board recently awarded $11 million in tax breaks for a luxury apartment complex that’s being designed by the company that Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson works for.

That has some some crying foul, though Clarkson acknowledged he had a conflict of interest and recused himself from City Council meetings when the project was discussed, as required by the city's ethics code.

At issue is whether Clarkson acted properly by voicing support for the development in conversations with council members, development authority members, constituents, staff and friends. He said he always disclosed his relationship with Wakefield Beasley & Associates, the site’s architectural design firm that he works for as a contract employee focused on business development.

Clarkson rejects the idea that he influenced officials’ decision-making to financially benefit his employer. But, for some, his dual role as mayor and businessman during the deal raises questions about whether he was representing the interests of the public or his employer.

“I go out and try to paint the city in a good light, and I would never do anything to give the city I care so much about a bad name,” Clarkson said in an interview. “Just because you think it’s unethical doesn’t mean it is. There aren’t black helicopters dropping money in my back yard. I’ll stand behind everything I do.”

Clarkson said he isn't making any money from the tax break deal awarded for the Chamblee Atlanta project. The incentives were approved June 28 by the Chamblee Downtown Development Authority, which is a separate entity from the city of Chamblee's government.

Under Georgia law, development authorities have the power to grant property tax abatements to encourage business growth, and their members are residents appointed by elected officials.

William Perry, the executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said elected officials shouldn't be at all involved with companies doing business within their cities. An official's recusal from votes isn't adequate because he could still affect the outcome of government decisions through the power of his position, Perry said.

“Someone can walk out of a room, but they still have conversations with the City Council and other officials, and they can make a decision favorable to that person because they like him or want to see him benefit,” Perry said. “In a Utopian world, you wouldn’t be able to do business with the jurisdiction you represent.”

The Chamblee Atlanta development, which will be built down the street from the Chamblee MARTA station on property previously occupied by a Nissan dealership, will include 310 apartments, restaurants, office space, a yoga studio, a pet grooming company, a juice bar, a pool and a cigar lounge, according to the developer, Del American Real Estate Group. The project will cost $72.5 million.

The tax break deal forgives 100 percent of new property taxes for up to 18 years, though the developer will be required to continue paying $140,000 annually to local governments as well as administrative fees to the development authority worth 20 percent of what its taxes would have amounted to if not for the tax break. The value of the tax break is capped at $11 million.

“The size of the abatement was necessary for the property to reach the luxury level it’s advertised as being,” said David Carter, an attorney who serves as the chairman of the development authority. “We were aware that the mayor has some relationship with Wakefield Beasley, but … it wasn’t a conflict that became a point of contention within the development authority debate. It didn’t affect the development authority’s decision-making.”

DeKalb County Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman said conflicts of interest don't necessarily amount to improper behavior.

“It is not unethical to have a conflict of interest. What’s unethical is if you act on the conflict of interest to the detriment of the city in which you work,” said Kalberman, who handles ethical issues in county government but not in cities.

Clarkson recused himself three times in June and July before the City Council voted on a zoning change for the Chamblee Atlanta site, and he said he didn’t recall attending any development authority meeting where the development was discussed. The development authority’s meeting minutes from February say the mayor supported the project, though Clarkson said he wasn’t at the meeting.

Councilman Tom Hogan questioned why Clarkson didn’t publicly disclose his conflict of interest before the council’s June 16 meeting.

“If he was involved in the six months leading up to that, and then recuses himself at the last second, I’m not sure if that’s appropriate,” Hogan said. “I don’t hold his behavior out to be unethical at all. I think it was a poor decision with the timing.”

Clarkson said he has to earn a living outside his mayoral job, which he has held since 2006 and pays $18,000 a year.

“We all have other jobs. This happens any time an elected official finds himself in a position to recuse himself,” Clarkson said. “I wish I could jump up and cheer about the project more, but cynical people will say, ‘He’s just trying to promote his firm.’”