Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, from left, Tommy Hunter, Chair Charlotte Nash, Lynette Howard, and Jace Brooks, talk before they hold a town hall meeting at Grayson High School Wednesday night in Loganville, Ga.
Photo: Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com
Photo: Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com

While Fulton gets a makeover, some ask why Gwinnett gets a pass

One county has endured botched elections, questionable tax lien sales and jail conditions so poor they require federal oversight. The other has seen two commissioners charged with bribery, a third accused of the same in a civil lawsuit and a chairman who resigned to avoid a perjury charge.

But while Republicans in the Legislature recently passed a slew of proposals to remake a Fulton County government they call dysfunctional, they’ve viewed corruption allegations against Gwinnett County government as a matter for prosecutors.

Some Democrats say lawmakers’ hands-off approach in Gwinnett — where a federal corruption probe continues — underscores the partisan nature of the Republican campaign in Fulton. And some Gwinnett residents wonder why lawmakers have ignored a 2010 grand jury recommendation to reorganize the County Commission to combat corruption.

“They’re perpetuating a corrupt system through their inaction,” said Jim Regan of Citizens for a Better Gwinnett, a group that supports a reorganization.

Republicans say Fulton’s problems are different than those in Gwinnett.

“I see no need for new laws dealing with the alleged conduct of public officials in Gwinnett, since it appears that justice is being served by those already on the books,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross.

The state’s two largest counties have seen plenty of trouble.

Though Fulton commissioners have been convicted of corruption charges in the past, the county has gained attention more recently for what critics call mismanagement.

A federal judge has monitored Fulton jail overcrowding for seven years. The Secretary of State’s Office is investigating alleged mismanagement in last year’s presidential and primary elections. And The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has exposed questionable tax lien sales that critics say put homeowners in jeopardy of losing their homes over small debts they didn’t even know they owed.

Republicans also say the Democrat-led County Commission spends too much money and pays little heed to its north Fulton constituents.

Those concerns led Republicans this spring to pass 10 bills they say will reform Fulton government. Among other things, the bills signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in the past weekexpand north Fulton representation on the commission, prohibit the commission from raising property taxes for the next two years and give the local legislative delegation the authority to nominate the county’s election board chairman.

Some Fulton residents welcome the changes.

“I think it’s a good first step,” said Buckhead resident Bernie Tokarz. “Now the burden is on the Board of Commissioners to work to rightsize Fulton County government.”

Fulton Democrats say the fiscal restraints are unnecessary because they’ve cut spending and haven’t raised taxes since 1991. They say Fulton’s other problems have been exaggerated. And they cite the General Assembly’s inaction in Republican-led Gwinnett as evidence that partisan gain — not reform — is the real intent of the Fulton bills.

“None of us have been accused of taking any kind of money,” said Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards, a Democrat. “Gwinnett’s been blowing up all over the place, and nobody’s doing anything.”

The Gwinnett Board of Commissioners has endured a series of recent scandals. In 2010, a special grand jury found the county had paid millions of dollars too much for land in deals that benefited well-connected developers at the expense of taxpayers.

The jury indicted Commissioner Kevin Kenerly on a bribery charge, saying he accepted or agreed to accept $1 million from a developer to arrange for the county to buy land. Kenerly has denied any wrongdoing, and the charge is still pending.

The jury declined to indict then-Chairman Charles Bannister on a perjury charge when he offered to resign.

Last year, Gwinnett Commissioner Shirley Lasseter pleaded guilty to accepting $36,500 from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for her vote on a real estate development. Three others also pleaded guilty to bribery and other charges in an ongoing federal corruption probe.

Most recently, a property owner who lost a bid to house a state office filed a lawsuit claiming Gwinnett Commissioner John Heard demanded $240,000 a year to help him land the lease. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI have interviewed the property owner. Heard denies the allegation.

To combat corruption, the grand jury sought changes to Gwinnett’s ethics policies and land-buying procedures, which commissioners later approved.

Jurors also said individual commissioners had too much power over county zoning and land-purchasing decisions in their districts. They recommended a shakeup on the commission: either make the part-time commissioners full time or increase the size of the five-member commission to reduce commissioners’ workload. The idea was to give commissioners more time to review the zoning and other matters that seemed to result in corruption charges.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia is not aware of any Georgia county with full-time commissioners. Some, like Gwinnett, have full-time commission chairmen.

Changes to the commission’s structure must be approved by Gwinnett’s legislative delegation, then move through the Legislature. The delegation has taken no action, though several Gwinnett lawmakers also represent parts of Fulton and supported the bills affecting county government there.

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, who represents both counties, said the situations are different.

“One is criminal activity. One is mismanagement,” Millar said. “It’s hard to legislate against criminal activity.”

Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, a Republican, said commissioners’ actions since the grand jury report have shown they are serious about addressing past problems. She said a commission shakeup isn’t needed.

Others see it differently. Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, agreed Gwinnett’s problems stem in part from the behavior of individual commissioners, but he said the structure of the commission may be a contributing factor.

Thomas said Republicans in the delegation have been reluctant to expand the commission in part because it could allow Democrats to win seats on the all-Republican board.

University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock also sees “a degree of partisanship” in the Legislature’s different treatment of the two counties. He said Fulton Democrats and Republicans have long fought over various issues, but now Republicans have a majority in the county’s legislative delegation.

“A different team is now in control,” Bullock said. “The new team is pushing its advantage as far as it can.”

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