It turns out there is such a thing as a free lunch -- at least for some in DeKalb County government.
Companies contracted to do work for the county have been buying meals for county commissioners and their staff, according to Channel 2 Action News.
Officials defend the practice, saying the meals are only worth about $10 to $12 per person and not enough to corrupt anyone.
Morris Williams, chief of staff for the Board of Commissioners, told Channel 2 on Thursday that he and Commissioner Elaine Boyer were trying to save taxpayers money when they petitioned companies to defray the cost of feeding people during meetings.
Corporations such as engineering giants CH2M Hill, Jacobs Engineering Group and Brown & Caldwell have spent at least $500 per working lunch, according to county records.
Williams said he knows the companies want more business from DeKalb, but he said that's not why they're invited to meet. The meetings are intended to shed light on ongoing projects.
"It's explicit that they cannot come in and ask for new work," Williams said. "They can only talk about the current work."
The county code of ethics says elected officials and staff "shall not directly or indirectly request, receive or agree to receive any thing of value which may influence or be perceived to influence ... official actions."
Williams said he will ask for an opinion from the county Board of Ethics and county attorney, but Boyer said she thinks there is no problem.
"I don’t believe we’re in violation because it's an open process, all seven commissioners are always present and staff are running in and out," Boyer told Channel 2. "They’re not peddling influence because they already have existing contracts."
Stanley Baum, a former member of the Ethics Board, said he doubts anyone will be sanctioned over the matter because the ethics code does allow small nonmonetary gifts of "insignificant" value. But he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it doesn't look good when companies that will probably be bidding on contracts are buying lunches for the people who might award those contracts.
Baum said someone should have thought to ask the Ethics Board beforehand whether this was an appropriate way to save taxpayer dollars. Then he added: "That presumes these people shouldn't be paying for their own lunches anyway."
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