With Capitol fight looming, Fulton rejects lobbyist contracts

Fulton County faces a tough battle at the state Capitol that could see its powers gutted, but three months before the Legislature convenes, the county government has no plan for fighting back.

North Fulton lawmakers expect to gain a firm upper hand next year through redistricting, and several leaders have vowed to start reining in a County Commission they say has diminished in importance since four new cities formed in the 2000s. More than 90 percent of Fulton residents now live within one of 14 cities.

But on Wednesday, commissioners shot down more than $240,000 in contracts for both state- and federal-level lobbyists. They then lacked to votes to put the contracts back out for bid.

Tightening restrictions on Fulton’s commission could have far-reaching implications for taxes and services for nearly 1 million people, including 430,000 in Atlanta and about 350,000 in the county’s six northern cities.

In past sessions of the General Assembly, Fulton has spent tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists to push back against Republican efforts to restructure the county’s government or to allow the northern cities to break off into a new Milton County.

For the session that opens in January, state Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, is expected to push for a tax cap that could see county taxes go down. House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, who represents Buckhead, wants city governments to take over some county services — possibly libraries and senior centers — which could strain city governments that have their own tax caps and can’t raise taxes without referendums.

The lobbyist proposals ran into trouble Wednesday when Commissioner Robb Pitts accused county staffers of manipulating the bid process so that the spouse of the county’s current hired lobbyist would get the $160,0000 state-level contract. He called the proposed $85,000 federal contract “wasteful and useless,” and Vice Chairwoman Emma Darnell questioned why the county should pay a firm to communicate with members of Congress whom she bumps into in the grocery store.

Questions were raised about why the county should pay for outside lobbying firms when it also has an in-house Intergovernmental Affairs Division that’s spending more than $600,000 this year. It’s also part of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which lobbies for the state’s counties.

Critics who have questioned spending taxpayer dollars so one government can lobby another — fighting some constituents’ wishes in the process — say the impasse could make a good stopping point for Fulton. Shedding outside lobbyists might even show lawmakers that the county is willing to rein in spending on its own, they said.

“There has been grumbling down at the state Legislature about lobbyists who are hired with taxpayer dollars from local governments,” said William Perry, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, “and perhaps by allowing their legislators in the Fulton County delegation to advocate for their needs, they’ll get more mileage.”

County Manager Zachary Williams said Wednesday that if the commission can’t agree on a contract for state lobbyists, he’ll probably stick to the current arrangement.

State lobbyist Mike Vaquer is considered a temporary employee, and this year he earned nearly $124,000 — $68.75 per hour for 1,800 hours. A second state lobbyist, Michele Dunn, earned $15,000.

The county put next year’s job out for bid and got two takers, with Jean McRae and Associates judged the winner. McRae is Vaquer’s wife, which had Pitts calling foul.

“I cannot believe, Mr. County Manager, that you would even bring something like this before us,” Pitts said.

Vaquer said he would no longer have been involved had his wife received the contract.

“It was a total arm’s length transaction,” Vaquer said of the bid, “and I was not involved in any way.”

The coming legislative session could be pivotal for Fulton. With new district maps taking effect, Republicans will control the county’s legislative delegation, made up of lawmakers whose districts fall within Fulton. The Senate and House panels decide whether any bill dealing specifically with the county gets introduced in the General Assembly.

Republicans have long complained that the delegation’s Democratic majority has prevented them from altering the county government’s structure.

One matter to be taken up is county-level redistricting, since the delegation didn’t approve the commission’s proposed new map last year. Lindsey said the countywide seat — now held by Pitts — could be replaced by another district seat, possibly giving north Fulton another vote on the commission.

Lindsey said the issue isn’t which lobbyists the county hires. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on a losing battle is a waste of taxpayer money, he said, which could be better spent studying which county services could be turned over to the cities.

North Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who was out sick Wednesday, said the commission needs to decide soon how it’s going to handle the 2013 General Assembly.

“I question if we really need [lobbyists],” she said. “I don’t know why, as commissioners, we can’t work with the legislators and craft some reforms that would be beneficial to all parties.”

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