Exterior of Buford City Hall in Buford on Tuesday, August 28, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In Buford, one family’s grip on power raises ethics concerns

Gwinnett County city faced scrutiny over racial tirade

Tucked away in the northern reaches of bustling Gwinnett County, Buford has for years cast itself as both fiercely independent and a wholesome alternative to the rest of metro Atlanta and its apparently big-city ways. The community of 15,000 has become a magnet for families attracted by award-winning schools and a small-town feel in the middle of the suburbs.

That image took a hit earlier this year when an audio tape surfaced in which someone — purportedly the then-superintendent of the city’s school system — is heard spewing racial slurs. The ensuing controversy sparked soul searching by the community but also brought to the forefront allegations that have long lingered: that family connections control Buford.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation, launched in response to concerns raised by local residents, found that in Buford one family now holds so much sway that the town literally can’t do business without it.

The result is ethical complications stretching in several directions. That includes having an uncle and nephew who wield two-thirds of the voting power on the city’s uniquely small governing body. They also are real estate business partners on investment properties in the city, the AJC found.

The uncle and nephew on the unpaid city commission — Phillip Beard and Brad Weeks, respectively — have each voted on zoning, land transaction and personnel issues that the other had a business or personal connection to, the AJC determined. For example, the uncle voted to allow a proposed truck terminal on land partly owned by his nephew. The nephew voted to allow townhouses on land owned by the local bank where his uncle is on the board of directors and one of the largest owners.

Buford Commission Chairman Phillip Beard (from left), Vice Chairman L. Chris Burge (center) and Comissioner Bradley W. Weeks (right) performs their duties during the final Buford City Commission meeting of the year at the Buford City Hall building in Buford, Monday, December 3, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ethics experts see problems.

The former head of the state ethics commission said there is a “good argument” that one family member voting on another’s property runs afoul of Buford’s own rules.

A member of Emory University’s ethics faculty said the arrangement represents “just the type of situation that damages people’s trust in the fair functioning of their governments and creates a situation ripe for corruption or abuse.”

The boss of Buford doesn’t buy it.

Beard is simultaneously chairman of both the city commission and the school board and has run the Gwinnett County city for more than 40 years. He said he doesn’t believe there’s an issue — not with his or his nephew’s votes or with anything else involving the city’s leadership.

“There ain’t a thing wrong with Buford,” Beard said.

Said Weeks, the nephew: “I make sure 100 percent not to vote anything I have any connection to at all.”

Connections and questions

Plenty of Buford residents are happy with much of the job Beard and his colleagues have done, including improving the city’s streetscapes, cracking down on some code violations and avoiding increases in residential charges for city services.

But critics see rigid — even claustrophobic — control by city leaders and an overall lack of transparency that may cloak improprieties.

Beard said the one word that best describes Buford is “different.”

The AJC found that can take many forms, not all of which are positive.

City commission meeting agendas and minutes are not generally posted online, and the start time for meetings wasn’t either until the newspaper mentioned the omission. City elections are conducted with voters marking ballots with pencils, a practice the city attorney defended and that Beard backs because “it’s just the way it’s already been.”

The city’s charter also includes an unusual provision that calls for the city commission chairman to automatically chair the school board. State law generally bars elected city officials from holding another municipal office at the same time but Buford’s attorney, Gregory Jay, wrote in an email to the AJC that the law doesn’t apply, in part, because the city commission chairman doesn’t directly appoint himself to the school board.

Buford Commission Chairman Phillip Beard participates during the final Buford City Commission meeting of the year at the Buford City Hall building in Buford, Monday, December 3, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

One thing is clear — the arrangement is just one way Beard has amassed powerful influence in Buford, where locals often assume little gets done without his OK. In addition to leading the two most powerful government panels, Beard is listed as one of the biggest owners of a local bank that handles the city’s sizable payroll and bond payments. He’s cousin to the founder of a company that has regularly won the city’s water and sewer pipeline projects. (He has often abstained on votes involving each.)

Beard has been an active real estate investor most of his life, both in the city and outside of it. He has left the impression that his holdings in the city were ones he or his family owned prior to him taking office in the 1970s. But government records show firms he owned also made more recent purchases, such as land he acquired beside the first mixed-use development rezoning approved by Beard and other city commissioners.

Beard has faced controversy lately. He earlier acknowledged that his is the second voice on the racial audio recording. On the tape Beard neither uses slurs nor objects to them. He has raised questions about whether the recording was doctored and said he doesn’t recall hearing the objectionable words.

Buford drew the spotlight earlier this year when a man, believed to be the superintendent of schools, was heard on audio tape using racial slurs. The controversy attracted an overflow crowd to an August meeting of the Buford Board of Education. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Meanwhile, some say that, under Beard’s decades-long leadership, a web of nepotism and family prerogatives has survived and thrived.

Beard’s wife, Sylvia, operates her private piano lesson business in a dedicated room in one of Buford’s public schools. She’s paid by parents of the pupils, who leave school-day activities for the lessons. It’s a practice she said others did before her and that she began years before her husband took office.

“(T)here has never been a mention of rent, because the schools realize the benefit for the students,” she wrote in an email to the AJC.

Buford’s commissioners also have an array of family members who work for the city or affiliated entities.

A brother is the city’s parks and recreation director; a son is the head of the city water plant; a sister-in-law serves on the school board; a father is the city’s lone building inspector; a niece is an assistant principal and her husband is the school system’s operations manager; a cousin directs the housing authority; another is a teacher and coach at the middle school. 

Those are just some of the connections. Commissioners say family members earned positions on merit and some had their jobs before relatives won elected office.

‘The smallest hint of a conflict’

One family tie has raised particular questions. In January, Beard’s nephew, Brad Weeks, took a seat two down from his uncle on the commission dais. Weeks had won an open city commission position after running unopposed.

The three-member body Beard and Weeks now serve on is the smallest governing body of any city of its size in Georgia and has control over a surprisingly big pie.

With its own electric, garbage, school tax and water and sewer systems and, particularly, its multi-county natural gas network, Buford generates far more money than many larger local cities, such as Dunwoody, Johns Creek and Kennesaw.

Buford has a budget larger than several other bigger cities in the region. Photo Courtesy City of Buford
Photo: For the AJC

Beard told The AJC he didn’t want his nephew to join him on the city commission because he knew it would raise questions.

In addition to being relatives, the two share leadership positions and ownership in local real estate companies, according to disclosures both elected officials are required to file under state law.

Yet the AJC found that about a dozen times this year one of the men abstained from a vote apparently to avoid potential conflicts of interest while the other did not. Some involved multiple votes on the same cases that were tabled for another date. Weeks said he didn’t vote in some cases because he and the applicants had pending real estate deals on other properties.

Weeks, who is 38, downplays his business ties to his uncle, who is in his late 70s. While Weeks said he helps his uncle manage companies, he stressed that he isn’t paid for the work.

“We do very little business together. We’ve kept that separate. He has his business; I have mine,” said Weeks, who is a real estate investor and property manager.

Buford Commissioner Bradley W. Weeks participates during the final Buford City Commission meeting of the year at the Buford City Hall building in Buford, Monday, December 3, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

However, the AJC’s review found that Beard and Weeks both listed ownership interests in the same three real estate companies in recent disclosure forms. Weeks also often lists his uncle’s home address on filings tied to his real estate, including rental properties the younger man has with a cousin.

But avoiding their potential conflicts would create its own problems. If both Beard and Weeks abstained on a vote involving one or the other, some city business could grind to a virtual halt. If two of the three commissioners abstain, decisions would have to go to the court system for resolution, according to state law.

Beard said he has avoided all conflicts of interest, and that he is no longer an active real estate investor, though he is in the process of selling some of his holdings.

Weeks, meanwhile, said “a lot of times, I’ll consult with the city attorney, and even if he says I do not have to abstain, I will abstain even if there’s just the smallest hint of a conflict.”

Weeks — and Jay, the city attorney — cited a state law that requires officials to disclose conflicts and potentially recuse themselves from zoning votes involving a spouse, parent, sibling or child with a property or financial interest in a case. But it doesn’t restrict uncles or nephews, Weeks said.

‘A little kingdom’

Some local residents are surprised by officials voting on projects a close family member is tied to.

Eddie Gillam was against a proposal for a truck terminal on land beside homes off Plunketts Road and along I-985. Residents signed a petition to fight the zoning proposal and when they lost before the city commission, some said they would sell their homes to get away from what was to come, Gillam said.

“No wonder it seemed like a done deal,” said Gillam, when he learned that Beard’s nephew, who abstained from the vote, was a co-owner on the property. Beard should have abstained, too, he said.

Tom Hollimon, another nearby resident, said the same when he learned about the family connection. He questioned why it was legal for Beard to vote. “If I was trying to get a rezoning done, I would hope my uncle would be sitting on the board.”

Beard, he said, “does a good job down here for the city of Buford, but it is a little kingdom down there.”

Beard did not agree to sit for an AJC interview for this story by deadline, but he did share some thoughts by phone and in text messages.

The truck terminal vote he was involved in “is of no consequences,” he texted, because it was tied to a proposed sale of the property that has since been cancelled.

But ethics experts see issues.

Stacey Kalberman, the former head of the state ethics commission, wrote that there is a “good argument” that Beard’s and Weeks’ votes violate Buford’s own bans against votes by officials when personal interests would tend to impair the independence of their judgment or action in the performance of their official duties.

Stacey Kalberman, former executive director of the state ethics commission, is shown in 2016. She said Buford’s arrangement raises ethics questions. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Kalberman teaches ethics classes for DeKalb County that include two rules: 1) Do what’s in the best interest of the County regardless of your own personal or financial interest; 2) Avoid the appearance of impropriety.

“The situation above breaks both my rules,” she wrote.

Edward Queen, a faculty member for Emory University’s Center for Ethics who consults for government, nonprofits and businesses, said the Buford situation is disturbing and poses a “high level of appearance of conflict of interest.”

The small size of Buford’s commission is another cause for concern, he said.

Because it only takes two commissioners to have a quorum, any two — including uncle and nephew — talking about official city business outside officially publicized meetings could violate state law designed to protect government transparency.

Chris Burge, the lone commissioner who isn’t part of the Beard family, told the AJC that he and Beard disagree a lot, though their votes at commission meetings are almost always in sync with each other.

Buford Commission Vice Chairman L. Chris Burge participates during the final Buford City Commission meeting of the year at the Buford City Hall building in Buford, Monday, December 3, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“We’re not gonna get down in front of everybody in a city meeting … and fight like cats and dogs. We’ll do it upstairs. We iron it out and work it out, and we go and do what we got to do,” he said. “… We can never do any kind of vote or anything like that in secrecy. But we talk, yeah.”

Burge, who’s in his 25th year on the commission, said he doesn’t believe there has been a problem with actions by Beard and Weeks.

“If there’s anything corrupt went on, they’ve covered my eyes to it,” he said. “I’ve never seen it.”

Beard suggested that residents are happy with his leadership and the city’s successes or more people would run or vote against him.

“If I had been a crook,” he said, “I would have been gone a long time ago.”

 —AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

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