The founders of metro Atlanta’s crop of new cities made big promises about honesty, transparency and stripped-down government. They would steer clear of all that’s wrong with the county governments they loathed.
But forming a city means creating a new bureaucracy, and entrusting another set of personalities with power to spend millions of taxpayer dollars. Newbie politicians may not immediately grasp the ethical strictures that go with public service. Or perhaps they do, but don’t care.
Pretty soon, trouble starts to boil.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found numerous problems among the growing ranks of metro Atlanta’s new cities, from Johns Creek to Brookhaven, Dunwoody to Sandy Springs. Elected leaders have faced complaints that they steered city business to relatives and campaign donors, accepted gifts and favors barred by ethics codes, spent too freely on salaries or dreamed up mega-dollar development deals that many constituents didn’t want.
Officials in Brookhaven and Johns Creek told the AJC they had done nothing wrong. None has been charged with a crime or cited with an ethics violation; complaints were often addressed quietly, away from public view.
Political watchdogs and social scientists said these problems illustrate the pitfalls inherent in birthing a new government.
“When we talk about forming a new city, it’s a blank slate,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor. “People can project onto it their ideal notions of the relationship between citizens and officials. But there’s bound to be some disappointment.”
Gaining influence with top officials can be easier in a small city. There are fewer power players, and some have known each other and done business for decades. At the same time, one watchdog’s voice can more easily be heard in a tight community than a big county.
Alarms raised by citizen watchdogs led to changes in Brookhaven’s ethics code. Unrest in Dunwoody propelled one of three “Clean Sweep” candidates onto the City Council.
Whatever the risks of forming a new city, proposals paving the way for five more cities are expected to be discussed during this legislative session: LaVista Hills, Tucker, Stonecrest, South DeKalb and South Fulton.
“It’s significant and unprecedented,” state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said. “People are choosing Balkanization. Are they choosing wisely? Time will tell.”
Campaign donors and city business
In 2013, several city officials in Johns Creek accused Mayor Mike Bodker of unethical conduct in his official dealings with men who had given him campaign contributions and gifts. The city hired former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson to investigate.
According to Wilson’s preliminary report, Bodker pushed the council to buy property from a campaign donor, Bob Cheeley, and urged the city to pay Cheeley’s asking price. Cheeley gave Bodker’s campaign $1,000 in 2006.
Cheeley was asking for more than $3 million for the property, former City Manager John Kachmar told the AJC. The council insisted on an independent appraisal, which came in at $2 million.
Wilson’s report also explored Bodker’s relationship with developer Richard Aaronson. Wilson said that in 2010, Bodker spent a free week in Aaronson’s Destin, Fla., beach house, then spent a year renting a townhome from Aaronson at a rate below what other tenants were paying.
In December 2010, a few months after the beach trip and just as he was moving into the townhome, Bodker voted in favor of changes Aaronson had requested in the Johns Creek Walk Phase II project.
The Aaronson family and company gave Bodker’s campaign $2,000 in 2008 and $3,500 in 2013.
Most cities’ ethics regulations do not prohibit elected officials from casting votes on work involving campaign contributors, so long as the official made no promises in return for the money. Nevertheless, it’s a controversial practice and some watchdogs have called for reforms.
Wilson concluded that by accepting a gratuity and not recusing himself from the vote, Bodker had violated the Johns Creek ethics code.
Bodker chalked up the discount on the townhouse to rental rates dropping during the recession. He said the vote on Aaronson’s development was unanimous and concerned minor modifications to an already-approved project.
Bodker told the AJC he and Aaronson have been friends for more than 20 years, and said he had no conflict because he didn’t stand to make money off the deal.
Wilson’s probe was cut short after several of Bodker’s critics on the City Council were replaced by voters in November 2013. Wilson said the mayor stalled until after the election by refusing to hand over phone records.
The mayor said the phone records were personal and would prove nothing.
‘I believe this is bad business’
Brookhaven, the newest of the freshly minted cities, was barely a year old when Brian Dyess took the podium at a meeting of the City Council on Jan. 14, 2014. He proceeded to blast officials for hiring the company of one of the mayor’s family members to paint and carpet part of the new police headquarters.
“I believe this is bad business,” Dyess said, looking directly at Mayor J. Max Davis. “I believe it’s also worse government.”
Dave Felton, who is married to Davis’ mother-in-law, is a vice president of Asurety Construction Services. He had sent Davis emails expressing a desire to land city contracts, according to city emails obtained by the AJC.
“I am just looking for some work. Things are a little slow right now,” Felton told the mayor in a September 2013 email.
Davis told the AJC he did not lobby on behalf of Asurety. He said he merely forwarded an email from Felton to City Manager Marie Garrett. The job that email concerned never came about, but Garrett later asked Asurety and another firm to bid on a different job. Asurety got that $28,000 contract after submitting the lower estimate.
“His contact with me didn’t give him any leg up or any advantage,” the mayor said.
Still, City Attorney Tom Kurrie insisted that the contract be brought to a full council vote, even though Garrett had authority to let the contract on her own. Davis recused himself and other council members were informed of the relationship between him and Felton.
Davis said he sees nothing wrong if a vendor’s relationship with an official leads to them getting city work, so long as it’s awarded openly and results in quality work that benefits taxpayers.
“When you’re starting up a city – none of us have ever started up a city before – things happen sort of unconventionally sometimes,” Davis said. “I think it’s just because you’re doing things on the fly, and we’re all in business. And you have to rely on your relationships to kind of help get things done.”
‘It’s very easy to develop terrible habits early’
Thomas Porter, a local architect and frequent critic of the new city, disagrees.
“I think it just smacks of being highly unethical,” Porter told the AJC. “It’s very easy to develop terrible habits early on and then say, ‘Well, that’s the way it’s always been done.’”
The mayor eventually told Felton to stop sending him emails about city business, Felton said.
Felton wasn’t the only person associated with Davis who earned money off the city, the AJC found. His law office legal assistant, Belenda Demos, became interim city clerk when Brookhaven first incorporated and later worked as a contract employee for about seven months.
Garrett, the city manager, said in a written statement to the AJC that the mayor hired Demos over her objections. “I was concerned that this hire, because of her employment with the mayor’s law firm, suggested and had the perception of a conflict of interest,” Garrett said.
The mayor said he only suggested the city hire her.
Once Demos was on the job, however, several employees complained that she did legal work for the mayor while working at City Hall, Garrett said. Both Davis and Demos deny that assertion.
Garrett reported the employees’ complaints to Kurrie, the city attorney, and Demos’ employment ended in August of 2014.
Kurrie said he never looked into the issue, since Demos was already gone.
‘There is no pay-to-play here’
The Brookhaven Police Department had a simple system for keeping its cars clean. Officers paid for a car wash and were reimbursed.
City Councilman Joe Gebbia thought he had a better plan. He suggested that the police chief consider using Hi Speed Car Wash to clean the city’s fleet. The local company charged only $3 for its cheapest wash.
Hi Speed was Gebbia’s top campaign contributor in 2013, giving him $2,500, records show.
“I can promise you, there is no pay-to-play here,” Gebbia said. “I mean, you got a police station just down the block. You got a $3 car wash. There’s no other $3 car wash around.”
Hi Speed’s owner, Ronnie Gullett, laughed when asked whether the donation helped him get the job. He said he makes only pennies of profit off each wash.
Gebbia’s second-biggest donor, the Coleman Talley law firm, also received county business. Coleman Talley attorneys, and one of their wives, had given Gebbia a combined $1,500.
Gebbia later seconded the motion to hire one of its lawyers, Kurrie, as city attorney. City financial records show the law firm earned more than $225,000 in its first 10 months on the job.
Kurrie told the AJC the donations weren’t meant to sway the councilman.
Oftentimes, it falls to an experienced city manager or city attorney to rein in an official who wanders over the line.
Kurrie stepped in after several Brookhaven employees complained that Councilman Bates Mattison was using an office in City Hall to conduct business for his private employer. They said they saw him spending hours there. At the time, he was working full-time for a health care information technology group that had no office.
Mattison said he set up a personal computer in the office for city business. He couldn’t help it if business calls came in on his cell phone, he said.
But Kurrie told him it didn’t pass the smell test. “I said to Bates, ‘This is what the ethics policy says,’” Kurrie told the AJC. “‘This is what state law says.’ And I said, ‘Even if you’re not using public property … you still have an appearance of a conflict and you should consider always taking that into consideration.’”
Small governments and big ideas
A founding principle of many newer cities is smaller, efficient government. But other impulses may soon take hold.
Brookhaven’s city manager, Garrett, was paid $252,000 during the city’s first year, which included a $200 per hour rate for work on Fridays, according to tax documents obtained by the AJC. That made her perhaps the highest-paid city manager in the state, according to a state survey and other research.
Mayor Davis said the city needed her because she had start-up experience from her time working for Johns Creek.
Her pay caused a stir, and the City Council has since set Garrett’s salary at $214,000 — still among the top city manager salaries in the state.
Elsewhere, Sandy Springs has drawn criticism for its plan for a $100 million city center.
Andy Bauman, a Sandy Springs council member, said he believes the project is an investment in the future.
“For me, the area on Roswell Road north of I-285 has gone unchanged for generations,” he said. “It’s become run down. (The city center) could jump-start it.”
But longtime resident Susan Joseph said the plan has grown and grown. What she thought would be a single multipurpose structure would now include several with government offices, a performing arts center, shops and residences.
“I think it’s extravagant,” Joseph said.
Not far away, Dunwoody officials have also been accused of mission creep. The city took on the 35-acre “Project Renaissance” redevelopment project, a partnership with John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods. The city went into debt to buy the property, with Wieland paying City Hall back in installments.
“I just felt like there were some misplaced priorities,” said Jim Riticher, who based his successful run for City Council on opposition to the project.
“When folks vote for (cityhood), they need to be ready to roll up their sleeves and get involved,” Riticher said. “Folks need to pay attention.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.